The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a formal policy outlining safety testing requirements and general guidelines for self-driving vehicles.

“Automated vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives, driving the single biggest leap in road safety that our country has ever taken,” says U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “This policy is an unprecedented step by the federal government to harness the benefits of transformative technology by providing a framework for how to do it safely.”

The policy framework sets goals for automakers and regulators in four areas – rules for automakers in designing and implementing autonomous technology; encouragement for state regulators to develop national standards instead of having different rules across state lines; legal interpretations on how NHTSA will apply its existing regulatory authority; and requests to lawmakers to update NHTSA’s regulatory authority to include new autonomous driving.

Much policy attention has gone to that first area – guidelines for designing and implementing autonomous cars and trucks. Vehicle performance guidance uses a 15-point safety assessment to set clear expectations for manufacturers developing and deploying automated vehicle technologies.

“Ninety-four percent of crashes on U.S. roadways are caused by a human choice or error,” says NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind. “We are moving forward on the safe deployment of automated technologies because of the enormous promise they hold to address the overwhelming majority of crashes and save lives.”

Current federal motor vehicle safety standards do not directly address automated vehicle technologies, and such standards typically take years to develop and are only put into force after new technologies have made significant market penetration. Instead, the automated vehicle policy envisions greater transparency as the DoT works with manufacturers to ensure that safety is appropriately addressed on the front-end of development.

“New technologies developed in the 20th century, like seat belts and air bags, were once controversial but have now saved hundreds of thousands of American lives,” Foxx says (pictured above). “This is the first in a series of proactive approaches, including the release of a rule on vehicle-to-vehicle communications, which will bring lifesaving technologies to the roads safely and quickly while leaving innovators to dream up new safety solutions.”

The primary focus of the policy is on highly automated vehicles (HAVs) - those vehicles that can take full control of the driving task in at least some circumstances. Portions of the policy also apply to lower levels of automation, including some of the driver-assistance systems already in use.

Simultaneously with this policy, NHTSA is releasing a final enforcement guidance bulletin clarifying how its recall authority will apply to automated vehicle technologies. In particular, it emphasizes that semi-autonomous driving systems that fail to adequately account for the possibility that a distracted or inattentive driver-occupant might fail to retake control of the vehicle in a safety-critical situation may be defined as an unreasonable risk to safety and subject to recall.