Automakers and tech companies alike have been testing self-driving cars on public roads for years, with a human in the driver’s seat in case of emergency. The results suggest that self-driving cars could be on the market in a few years, especially considering several automakers’ recent investments and acquisitions.


A few weeks ago, Uber began not only testing self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh, but also picking up passengers with safety-driver equipped autonomous vehicles. Pittsburgh, by the way, is the only U.S. city in which riders may be picked up by an autonomous vehicle. Such programs are already underway in Singapore.


Uber also recently announced a $300 million partnership with Swedish automaker Volvo to help each other develop self-driving technology. Ford has announced it would put driverless cars on the road for ride sharing by 2021, and ride-hailing firm Lyft has said a majority of its vehicles will also be driverless the same year.


Federal officials have struggled with how to promote the technology's promised safety benefits—that self-driving cars can react faster than people, and can’t be impaired or distracted like humans—but at the same time making sure they are ready for widespread use. Indeed, self-driving cars have the potential to save thousands of lives lost on the nation’s roads each year and to change the lives of the elderly and the disabled, President Barack Obama wrote in an op-ed published this week by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


“Safer, more accessible driving. Less congested, less polluted roads. That’s what harnessing technology for good can look like,” Obama wrote. However, he also noted that “We have to get it right. Americans deserve to know they’ll be safe today even as we develop and deploy the technologies of tomorrow.”


Toward that goal, the U.S. Department of Transportation this week released long-awaited guidelines for the testing and deployment of self-driving vehicles, giving manufacturers and researchers some direction for the future while not exactly spelling out the federal government’s exact responsibilities. At a news conference, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx described the 116-page policy document as “the most comprehensive national automated vehicle policy that the world has ever seen.” However, he added that the policy is a “living document” and leaves room for “more growth and changes” in the future.


“One of reasons we take great pains not to be so prescriptive” is because the technology is “dynamic” and changing fast, Foxx said, so the government needs to be “flexible."


Notably, the document outlines a “15-point safety assessment” letter that manufacturers and researchers will be asked to submit to the NHTSA explaining how the vehicle and its technology address issues such as vehicle cybersecurity and system safety. Eventually, this may become a mandatory report.


According to the document, federal regulations must be followed when the car is being driven by the software. Conversely, when humans are driving, “state laws apply,” Foxx said. He further explained that states will be responsible for determining liability rules for driverless vehicles, establishing a plan to limit potential driver distraction and determine which party needs to have motor vehicle insurance —the manufacturer, the owner, the operator or the passenger.


The news, and its inherent flexibility, most likely comes as good news to automakers who fear a patchwork of state laws will slow or complicate deployment of self-driving cars. Michigan legislature, for example, is considering bills that would allow the testing of self-driving cars without brakes or pedals on state roads. New York, on the other hand, has a longstanding law that requires drivers keep one hand on the wheel at all times, which undermines the rationale for self-driving technology.


What are your thoughts on federal guidelines for self-driving vehicles? Will it make it easier for companies, their partners and suppliers to produce such vehicles?