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Congress and the Obama administration appear united in a push to help self-driving cars hit the roads as technology advances are bringing the concept closer to reality.

But with the election year cutting into Congress’ work schedule and the administration preparing to hand off the torch in 2017, how much can actually be done related to the issue? Remarks from federal officials suggest that while Washington wants to help move the needle, states will have to lead policy to get cars driving themselves on U.S. roads.

“You know, it’s an announcement meant, I think, in an election year to generate some excitement, but other than saying there’s going to be this large infusion of money, it doesn’t really change anything,” said Mary “Missy” Cummings, a professor at Duke University who does research on autonomous vehicles. “Because the states themselves have been doing this all this time.”

Cummings said that until now federal agencies, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, have played a largely advisory role on autonomous vehicles and states have established laws allowing their operation. But with technology flooding the market and certification systems lacking, governments might take a different approach.

“I don’t think NHTSA or any of the government agencies in general have a clue how to set up a test program for what is essentially artificial intelligence,” Cummings said.

Meanwhile, tech companies such as Google are generating excitement with their development work.

Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s self-driving car program, drew laughs — and a packed audience — at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting in Washington last week, when he demonstrated a vehicle navigating its way around a woman chasing a duck on an electric wheelchair.

Urmson told the audience that self-driving cars could cut time wasted sitting in traffic in the U.S.

Agency Action

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx made a splash on Jan. 14 when he announced at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit that the president’s fiscal 2017 budget request would include $3.9 billion over 10 years to help develop self-driving vehicles.

Foxx also said his department would remove what he called roadblocks to integrating automotive technology that could improve safety, mobility and sustainability.

“In 2016, we are going to do everything we can to advance safe, smart and sustainable transportation innovation,” Foxx said. He made the announcement alongside NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind.

Foxx and Rosekind laid out the administration goals for policy in 2016. Much of it has to do with guiding states and the industry on how to move forward. NHTSA will also update a 2013 preliminary policy statement to reflect the possibility that widespread use of autonomous vehicles is now possible.

The $3.9 billion in the budget request would go for investment in safe-vehicle automation. President Barack Obama is scheduled to release the fiscal 2017 budget request on Feb. 9.

Foxx said the money would go for pilot programs to test connected vehicle systems in designated corridors throughout the country and transportation officials would work with industry to ensure a multi-state framework for connected and self-driving vehicles.

Advocates of self-driving vehicles see them as a way of reducing accidents, as well as delivering environmental benefits. Such vehicles would have the potential to communicate not only with other vehicles, but also with transportation infrastructure such as roads and signals. Fewer traffic-snarling accidents and reduced congestion would have the potential to reduce emissions.

“NHTSA is using all of its available tools to accelerate the deployment of technologies that can eliminate 94 percent of fatal crashes involving human error,” Rosekind said in a statement. “We will work with state partners toward creating a consistent national policy on these innovations, provide options now and into the future for manufacturers seeking to deploy autonomous vehicles, and keep our safety mission paramount at every stage.”

The Department of Transportation said NHTSA, the industry and others would spend six months developing guidance on safe operation of self-driving vehicles, including a common set of performance characteristics and the testing and analysis methods needed to assess them. NHTSA and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators would develop a model state policy for self-driving vehicles that could help establish a national policy.

Foxx encouraged manufacturers to request rule interpretation where appropriate to enable innovation. NHTSA, in one such case, said BMW’s self-parking system now met federal safety standards. Foxx has said previously that the feature did not comply with federal standards.

Foxx also urged manufacturers to use the agency’s exemption authority for self-driving vehicles if the interpretation authority doesn’t serve the purpose. Exemption authority allows NHTSA to enable the deployment of up to 2,500 vehicles for up to two years.

Congress Enthusiastic

The Department of Transportation’s announcement elicited a flood of generally positive responses from members of Congress, who were eager to weigh in on the technology and show their willingness to help industry navigate a policy framework that is not known for moving at the pace of innovation.

Congress will likely flex its muscles on the issue, too, as lawmakers consider the president’s budget request. Appropriations committees would likely have to go along with the administration’s plan for money to move.

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., issued a statement in response to Foxx’s news that announced a hearing “early this year” on developing automated technologies and where the federal government fits in.

“I urge the administration to work collaboratively with both Congress and private sector innovators in setting program priorities,” Thune said.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade Subcommittee Chairman Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, also called for NHTSA to “remain engaged” in a statement.

Congress has already put new language on the books as part of its passage of a surface transportation reauthorization bill in December (PL 114-94)that could help advance vehicle technology.

According to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, those include incentives for technology that enables vehicles to avoid crashes. The committee said members have also spurred agency action on the management of radio spectrum necessary for vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology in new vehicles.

Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., said in a Jan. 15 statement he successfully worked language into the highway bill that would help establish a university research center to encourage development of the technologies and a requirement for a federal audit of agency preparedness related to connected vehicles.

“We must do all we can to ensure the safety and security of the American people, both from collisions and cyber-threats,” Lipinski said in the statement. “It is a good sign that the Department of Transportation recognizes and supports this critical endeavor.”

But a number of issues still have to be ironed out before cars can drive themselves, explained Christopher Dolan, a San Francisco-based attorney who does auto safety litigation. Because cybersecurity, liability, and other issues remain, things don’t necessarily need to speed up, he said.

“What gets me concerned more is the tech companies saying we want to rush to market or the vehicle manufacturers saying we want to rush to market,” Dolan said. “There needs to be assurance to the public through proper development and testing that these systems are going to be safe.”

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