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The US government has announced a new federal policy for self-driving cars, which includes guidelines for the responsible federal agencies, a model legislative template for state governments, and a 15-point checklist that car makers and technology companies will be encouraged to measure their autonomous vehicles against.

The list lays out measures related to hacking and cybersecurity, along with data collection and sharing for accidents, malfunctions and near misses.

The checklist also touches on how information is conveyed to the person in the driver’s seat, including communicating when the car or the driver is in control, and shifting driving responsibilities between the two.

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If followed, the checklist will compel companies to state how their autonomous vehicles deal with grey zones and ethical dilemmas. In the former category, a car could temporarily break road rules, such as crossing double yellow lines, if they’re moving around a broken down vehicle or road hazard.

In the latter pot, cars might have to decide in an emergency situation whether to value the life of its passengers over, say, other road users or property.

Today’s announcement also includes a yearly review of the policy framework, and a call for public submissions and feedback, as well as dealing with how federal agencies can use their current powers to enforce safety standards on self-driving cars, and what new pieces of legislation might be needed in the future.

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It also lays out how the state and federal governments will go about regulating autonomous vehicles — a pertinent issue in the USA, where states have a lot more autonomy and power than they do in Australia.

In a nutshell, the federal government will be responsible for regulating the vehicles themselves and the technology driving them, while states are tasked with testing and certifying drivers, determining rules regarding insurance and liability, and registering the self-driving vehicles.

The entirety of the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy can be founded on the Department of Transport’s website.

Barack Obama

Writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, President Barack Obama talked about the advantages that autonomous vehicles could bring to society: “Right now, too many people die on our roads — 35,200 last year alone — with 94 per cent of those the result of human error or choice.

“Automated vehicles have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives each year. And right now, for too many senior citizens and Americans with disabilities, driving isn’t an option. Automated vehicles could change their lives.”

In an effort to see off possible Republican complaints about government interference and oversight stifling innovation, the President argues that the new guidelines are akin to federal laws regulating air and water cleanliness, and food and medicine safety.

He also notes that “the quickest way to slam the brakes on innovation is for the public to lose confidence in the safety of new technologies”.

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US transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, told reporters earlier this week: “The [new] policy improves upon traditional US auto regulation which relies on post-sale enforcement based on safety standards that can take many years to develop and traditionally are only put into force after new technologies have made significant market penetration.

“Instead, this automated-vehicle policy envisions greater transparency as [the Department of Transport] works with manufacturers to ensure that safety is appropriately addressed on the front end of development.”

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