By Melanie Zanona - 06/29/16 03:51 PM EDT
The head of the Department of Transportation (DOT) said forthcoming guidelines on autonomous vehicles are meant to provide direction to states as they implement their own regulations on the emerging technology.
The agency is expected to unveil guidance on self-driving cars sometime this summer, in an effort to offer states a clearer picture about how the federal government intends to approach the issue — but the guidelines won’t go through the formal rulemaking process.
“We are crafting a Declaration of Independence in a way, not crafting a Constitution,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters at a pen-and-pad briefing on Wednesday. “At this point, what we’re trying to do is lay a frame that the structure can be built on as time goes forward.”
A number of states have already begun to draft their own regulations on self-driving cars, sparking concern about a patchwork of polices that may emerge if a cohesive federal framework is not established.
Currently, there are no overarching federal laws specifically governing autonomous vehicles.
Regulators struggled to keep pace with the explosion of drones. The Federal Aviation Administration finalized its first major rule permitting small commercial drone use just this month — well after the technology already came to market.
The DOT doesn’t want to be caught flat-footed when it comes to self-driving cars.
But autonomous vehicle advocates have expressed concern that early or over-regulation of the nascent industry, especially at the federal level, will stifle innovation.
Foxx maintains that the DOT guidelines will attempt to strike more of a balance.
“There’s a need to get as exact as we can without overdoing it and leaving room for things to evolve a little,” he said.
Foxx also swatted away concern that the guidelines would attempt to answer questions that are “unanswerable” at this point, such as whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should approve both the physical self-driving vehicle and its computer software if it is considered the driver.
Instead, the guidance will more likely shed light on which aspects of regulation should be uniform across the country and which could be done on a state-by-state basis.
“We’re trying to establish some lanes for the federal government, for the states, so that we’re not running into each other,” Foxx said.
The DOT is, however, expected to release a formal rule this year requiring all new cars to have vehicle-to-vehicle communication, a system that would enable self-driving cars to talk to one another in order to anticipate sudden moves and avoid accidents.