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Self-Driving Cars Need `Performance-Based’ Rules, Chao Says (2)

Jan. 8, 2020, 7:00 PMUpdated: Jan. 8, 2020, 9:03 PM

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao wants to prevent companies from taking self-driving car research outside the U.S., as Congress has yet to produce legislation to regulate the technology.

Chao, speaking at a Las Vegas technology conference Wednesday, outlined guidance developed with the White House on how more than 30 federal departments and agencies will promote unified federal rules on self-driving cars under development by companies including Uber Technologies Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo LLC, Ford Motor Co., and General Motors Co.

The laws governing self-driving cars currently vary by state. Companies have said they’ll test the technology outside the U.S. if the government fails to create consolidated regulations.

“The federal government is all in,” Chao said in her speech Wednesday in announcing the fourth iteration of the agency’s guidance on self-driving cars. The previous one was released in October 2018.

An Argo AI modified Ford Motor Co. Fusion autonomous vehicle.
Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg

Congress has tried in vain to provide that federal framework. Lawmakers are developing legislation that would addresses how federal, state, and local governments should balance the regulation of the technology, according to the drafts. At least 29 states have already enacted their own laws related to autonomous vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

House Energy and Commerce ranking member Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and committee colleagues called on Congress in a statement Wednesday to deliver a self-driving car bill so that Americans can see the technology’s benefits “here at home, rather than abroad.”

Under the new guidance, the administration will generally seek “performance-based” regulations that are as “non-prescriptive as possible,” so that companies can test a wide range of self-driving car technology without government roadblocks. Companies testing self-driving cars are subject to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, the regulations specifying the design, construction, and performance requirements for cars. They have to obtain exemptions to those standards from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to test autonomous cars, and the number of exemptions available are limited.

The strategy also lists how other agencies across the administration, such as the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, will champion self-driving car security and research. The Department of Justice, for example, will make it a priority to secure from cyberattacks the computer systems that operate autonomous vehicles, according to the strategy. The guidance offers a list of tax incentives the Treasury Department offers for self-driving car research and development in the U.S.

“You have a federal government that has come together that has said we want the U.S. to lead in this domain,” said Michael Kratsios, U.S. chief technology officer, at the conference.

Under Chao, the Department of Transportation disbanded an Obama-era transportation automation advisory council that included top executives from General Motors Co, Inc, and Apple Inc. The agency has since formed a new council that addresses automation across modes of transportation, such as tunneling, hyperloop, and self-driving cars.

(Updates with Walden comment, tax incentives, Kratsios quote in last five paragraphs.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Courtney Rozen in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at; Robin Meszoly at