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Department of Transportation gives green light to driverless cars

Driverless cars got a green light from the Department of Transportation

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Auto manufacturers received some good news on Tuesday when Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced new federal guidelines for driverless cars.

The new guidelines, titled "A Vision For Safety 2.0," sets leaner regulations on the industry in an effort to encourage innovation. The 2.0 version follows up on a previous edition set by the Obama administration in September 2016, which was meant to be updated at a later date. The new version was cut down by more than half from the original, a move automakers were hoping for, according to Reuters.

"Today, the Department is releasing A Vision For Safety 2.0. To promote improvements in safety, mobility, and productivity through automated driving systems," said Chao, while presenting the guidelines in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "This advanced updated guidance clarifies and incorporates many of the concerns we subsequently heard from stakeholders and users."

The plan aims to offers the industry "a path forward" for the safe deployment of automated vehicles through four steps, according to Chao. First, it encourages new entrance and ideas that provide safer vehicles. Second, it makes the Department of Transportation processes more "nimble by creating a flexible framework" to keep up with innovation. Third, it supports industry innovation by communicating with the public and stakeholders. Lastly, it wants to create a set of best practices and offers assistance to local governments.

Chao was particularly enthusiastic about the possibility of driverless cars reducing deaths on the road. Approximately 94 percent of car crashes are tied to human error, according to the secretary, which contributed to the 35,092 people killed on U.S. roads in 2015. In theory, driverless vehicles would remove the main cause of accidents, thus drastically lowering accidents and casualties on the road.

A litany of legacy car makers, like Volkswagen, Toyota, and Ford, are already well on their way toward putting driverless models on the road in the near future. There are also some newcomers to the industry, like Tesla and the Google-backed Waymo, who are also making headway.

"I think we're going to see a huge sea change in what the car is, you know? And what mobility can be," said Tim Urquhart, principal analyst for IHS Markit. "From basically everyone driving themselves around to basically having personalized leisure pods, work pods, whatever the imagination is in terms of consumer opportunities or leisure opportunities, that's what people will be able to do in their vehicle."

But there are potential set backs for the industry. Some states, like California, Michigan and Nevada, only allow testing of driverless vehicles. California cracked down on Uber in 2016 for breaking those regulations. Professional drivers may also pose a problem. A lobbying group representing taxi and limousine drivers in New York is lobbying the state to put a 50 year ban on driverless cars.

Despite the growing pains, the industry has cleared a major hurdle with the new federal guidance.

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