US releases highway code for robot cars

Uber automated car Image copyright AP
Image caption Ride-hailing firm Uber is testing its automated vehicles in Pittsburgh

Robot cars in the US will have to be fitted with black boxes that record what happens if they crash, under US policy covering the vehicles.

The demand is part of a newly issued US Transportation Department policy covering autonomous vehicles.

The guidelines will replace a patchwork of different, and often contradictory, rules drawn up by separate states.

The US government plans to vet the code controlling robot cars before they win permission to drive alongside humans.

Crash data

"If a self-driving car isn't safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road," wrote President Barack Obama in an editorial for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette outlining the policy. "We won't hesitate to protect the American public's safety."

The president was writing in the Pittsburgh paper because the city is one of the first locations in which ride-hailing firm Uber is testing its autonomous vehicles.

He said the government's involvement would help to ensure the novel technologies were safe to deploy.

"The quickest way to slam the brakes on innovation is for the public to lose confidence in the safety of new technologies," he wrote.

The 15-point list in the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy includes guidance on the best way for robot car makers to handle security, test vehicles and record data in the event of a crash. It also covers data protection for customers, in-car controls and how the vehicle handles situations which it has not previously faced.

The US government said although pledging to follow the list was voluntary, it expected all developers of autonomous cars to sign up and comply with the recommendations.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Driverless cars have already been tested in British cities

It has also invited industry, researchers and policy makers to comment on its plan to enact powers that would let it vet code in robot cars.

The White House plans to host a summit on 13 October in Pittsburgh that will bring car makers together to talk about ways to speed up the use of autonomous vehicles.

The policy announcement was welcomed by the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets - a lobby group that counts Google, Ford, Lyft, Uber and Volvo among its members.

"This is an important step forward in establishing the basis of a national framework for the deployment of self-driving vehicles," said David Strickland, a spokesman for the group.

He urged state and local governments to work with federal regulators to develop a wide-ranging national framework governing the use of autonomous vehicles.

State laws that cover driverless cars differ greatly, with some demanding that the vehicles have a human driver in them at all times or that they must have a steering wheel.

In the UK, the government last year issued guidelines for testing autonomous cars which demand that the vehicles are tested thoroughly before being allowed to travel on public roads. It also requires that drivers be intimately familiar with the vehicle being tested and, in order not to distract other drivers, they must look like they are in control at all times.

Driverless car trials are currently under way in Bristol, Greenwich and Milton Keynes and Coventry.

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