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How the Obama administration wants to regulate self-driving cars

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Gene J. Puskar/AP/File

(Read caption) A self driving Uber car drives down River Road on Pittsburgh's Northside.

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The Obama administration has finally outlined its plans for legislating self-driving cars, a strong indication that automated vehicles will proliferate the highways of tomorrow.

In an unusual step, the President offered his thoughts in a column published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the hometown newspaper for a city that finds itself the unexpected center of the self-driving car movement thanks to a partnership between Uber and Carnegie Melon University. The first self-driving Uber car, a Ford Fusion, is now on the road in Pittsburgh. 

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Department of Transportation regulators have so far only offered a relatively high-level view, broken down into four key points:

  • A 15-point design and development standard for self-driving vehicle safety
  • An intention for states to develop a consistent, uniform policy for self-driving cars
  • A clarification of how existing regulator rules will be applied to autonomous vehicles
  • The potential for future regulations

In terms of vehicle design, the 15-point standard is most crucial to automakers. It places major emphasis on providing protection for passengers in the event of a collision, ensuring that vehicles are not susceptible to hacking attacks, and figuring out how vehicles will interact with each other and with "drivers." 

The DoT's assessment covers "ethical considerations" to address how vehicles will "address conflict dilemmas" on roads.

By no means are today's guidelines comprehensive, but they provide a concrete look at how the federal government will begin to regulate self-driving cars over the next few years. Regulation has long been considered a bigger hurdle than product development, as the self-driving Fusion running around Pittsburgh indicates.