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Transportation Officials To Issue Rules For Self-Driving Vehicles


The federal government thinks self-driving cars are no longer a thing of the future. On Tuesday, the transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, and White House economic adviser Jeffrey Zients laid out regulatory guidelines for the autonomous vehicle, which this administration likes a lot.

JEFFREY ZIENTS: Self-driving cars will give new mobility to millions who lack it today, including elderly and disabled Americans. And importantly, automated vehicles will help prevent the 94 percent of car crashes caused by human error.

INSKEEP: Jeffrey Zients went on to claim that self-driving vehicles will save the American economy an estimated $160 billion per year through increased productivity and improved gas mileage, among other things. NPR's auto industry correspondent Sonari Glinton is here. Hi, Sonari.


INSKEEP: So what does this announcement mean?

GLINTON: Well, this is the first time that the federal government has said, look, we have a role in this. And so what they're doing is saying if there's software in the car that drives itself, that's where we take charge. Also the government is saying that if you're going to put a self-driving car on the market, we have to have a say-so over that, too. Now, this is short of full-on regulations. These are regulatory guidelines. But this shows where the government is looking.

INSKEEP: What does that mean, regulatory guidelines?

GLINTON: Well, it doesn't have the full weight of a government regulation. We're getting to the point of regulating self-driving cars, and that's what this is about.

INSKEEP: But this is going to signal automakers you ought to be doing something like this or there could be trouble later on.

GLINTON: It's laying down the rules of the road before we get to the point where cars are driving themselves on mass.

INSKEEP: Literally, the rules of the road. Well, how big a moment is this, Sonari Glinton?

GLINTON: It's pretty big because it's the first time the government has gotten behind what many in the industry have understood to be an important problem. Thirty-six thousand people or more die in car accidents every year, 94 percent of which are caused by human error. If you get rid of these accidents, you can imagine how that changes our life. 3.5 percent of the GDP goes into dealing with these accidents.

INSKEEP: 3.5 percent.

GLINTON: Yeah, it's...

INSKEEP: That's, like, a year of strong economic growth that gets wiped out every year, you're saying.

GLINTON: If you think of the amount of loss - Princess Di, Princess Grace, James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, our former colleague Alan Cheuse. My own father died in a car accident.

INSKEEP: I'm sorry to hear that.

GLINTON: I mean, when we look at this, there's almost a healthcare crisis going on on our roads, and this is one of the things that is going to be able to address that.

INSKEEP: But this is really interesting because what people are focused on when they think about self-driving cars lately actually is a lack of safety, the fear that a driverless car is going to crash.

GLINTON: Yeah. I mean, when we look at the technology, the technology definitely avoids that, but people have a reason to be skeptical, right, because this week is the anniversary of the Volkswagen scandal. I've spent the last five years dealing with the Volkswagen scandal, recall issues and the bankruptcy of two of the biggest companies in the auto industry. So people have a reason to look at this and say, yeah, we have questions about these companies because that's where the issues are.

INSKEEP: OK. So the government is arguing that this is safer if it's done the right way, giving some regulations for that. But are people really ready to give up the experience of being behind the wheel, being in charge?

GLINTON: Well, you know, we're already giving up (laughter) that responsibility. If I stood on the corner here on North Capitol, I would see thousands of people staring at their phones, being distracted. I mean...

INSKEEP: While driving, sure.

GLINTON: While driving. I mean, we are at a point - 94 percent of these accidents are solvable, and it's a part of what the car industry has to do to convince us that this is worth doing. And they need to be doing a better job of that.

INSKEEP: Sonari, thanks for coming by.

GLINTON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR auto industry correspondent Sonari Glinton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.