Manufacturers, so far, have responded to the guidelines with cautious optimism—with many of them highlighting the onus on states to consider and implement complementary policies. “This will be a crucial journey that can only be accomplished by working together to avoid a patchwork of policies that could stymie technological development expected to someday save tens of thousands of lives per year,” said Scott Keogh, the president of Audi of America, in a statement provided by a spokesperson.
“State and local governments … should work with the federal government to achieve and maintain our status as world leaders in innovation,” said David Strickland, the head of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which represents a cohort of companies like Google and Uber.
Self-driving cars have become “the archetype of our future transportation,” officials wrote in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report. “Still, important concerns emerge. Will they fully replace the human driver? What ethical judgments will they be called upon to make? What socioeconomic impacts flow from such a dramatic change? Will they disrupt the nature of privacy and security?”
In addition to tackling many of the complex, unprecedented questions that self-driving cars raise—about user privacy and ethics, for instance—the federal government is radically reconsidering its own authority as it pertains to the regulation of automobiles.
In the era of driverless cars, the Department of Transportation is poised to take on a bevy of new responsibilities such as inspecting new vehicles, testing and regulating self-driving software, and creating new kinds of vehicle-testing environments—essentially establishing a new kind of federal DMV focused on driverless vehicles. (Under the new guidelines, states would still be responsible for issuing driver’s licenses to humans, handling registration and titling, carrying out enforcement of traffic laws, and regulating insurance and liability.)
The question of how to create effective policies for driverless cars—including licensing them—has been at the center of debate about the new technology.
“We have to figure out how to do a certification test,” Missy Cummings, the head of Duke University Robotics, told me last spring. “How do we certify humans? Well, we take them all in, we give them a stupid test—written and driving. The idea [for driverless cars] is that we take a car, and run it through a set of scenarios. If that same software is on the other million cars, then great. That car is ready to go, right? So we just need a new DMV for driverless cars. Because you’re not going to be able to test the code line by line.”
All this is happening at a time when state-level DMVs are themselves transforming. “When we talk about what’s coming in the future with autonomous vehicles, that’s only a continuation of the real evolution that we saw really start with 9/11,” said Jenny Openshaw, a vice president at MorphoTrust, an identity services company. “Before that, DMVs were really only focused on making sure drivers had the requisite skills to drive a car. After 9/11, there was a sudden realization that the processes and procedures [for someone] to prove that they are who say they are, were more important than ever. Really, what we’ve seen, is the DMV being more than just a driver’s license agency, but also an identity bureau.”