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NHTSA moves forward with new rules to accelerate autonomous tech

Federal regulators plan to make laws more flexible, paving the way for vehicles that do not have a steering wheel or other human controls.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is moving forward with its plan to reform federal automotive safety regulations to better mesh with autonomous technology.

Referred to as Automated Vehicles 3.0, the latest guidance helps clarify that the definitions of 'driver' and 'operator' will be modified to encompass both humans and automated systems.

The agency aims to provide broad flexibility while autonomous technology is still under development, giving automakers more leeway to pursue voluntary 'non-regulatory' safety standards through organizations or associations.

Many of the specific provisions may seem mundane, but the implications for the industry could be significant. For example, freight carriers will be able to deploy autonomous trucking technology that would previously have been barred due to the human-centric definition of an operator or driver. The guidance also moves closer to allowing autonomous cars that do not integrate a steering wheel, pedals or other human controls.

The NHTSA is currently working to streamline and modernize the procedures it relies on to process and decide exemption requests, aiming to clear away some of the traditional red tape that stands in the way of unique new technologies that do not comply with existing safety laws.

The federal government is still seeking comment from automakers and other stakeholders as it pushes forward with its plan, expecting advanced partially autonomous vehicles to become more popular in the coming years and fully self-driving vehicles to arrive around 2025.

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