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U.S. to speed rollout of self-driving cars by easing rules

A worker rotates the seats in the self-driving Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept car at the Mercedes-Benz booth at the International CES Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
A worker rotates the seats in the self-driving Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept car at the Mercedes-Benz booth at the International CES Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

(Bloomberg) -- Self-driving cars will get closer to appearing on American roads under a U.S. Transportation Department plan to speed their rollout.

Regulators will allow automakers that can demonstrate they have a safe autonomous vehicle to apply for exemptions to certain rules as part of the new approach, which is designed to ensure government doesn’t stand in the way of technological progress.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is expected to announce the rules Thursday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will issue guidelines on safe deployment of fully autonomous vehicles in the next six months. That will include how self-driving cars should be tested and benchmarks they’ll need to reach to be permitted on the road.

The industry’s frenzy to build more autonomous cars was on display at the auto show this week. Daimler AG unveiled a new flagship Mercedes-Benz E-Class that can steer itself in auto-pilot mode. The car also has emergency-braking assist, evasive steering and can park itself. It’s the first production model with vehicle-to-infrastructure communications ability.

Lyft, Tesla

General Motors Co. invested $500 million in Lyft Inc. to work with the ride-sharing company to develop a fleet of self- driving cars. Ford Motor Co. announced plans to test autonomous vehicles for better reaction to snowy conditions, one of the major technical hurdles.

Tesla Motors Inc. wasn’t at the Detroit show but representatives say it’s going to compete with Google Inc., which is operating perhaps the best-known fleet of self-driving cars, and Apple Inc., which is presumed to be working on them. The company’s chief executive officer, billionaire Elon Musk, says electric cars capable of driving autonomously across the U.S. should be technically feasible in two-to-three years.

The Transportation Department is also promising a quick response to companies that ask for interpretations for new features that might fall between the cracks of its 1960s-era set of safety regulations.

U.S. regulators will also work with state motor-vehicle departments on model regulations for registering and licensing self-driving cars.

Technology maturing

The technology enabling more autonomous vehicles is maturing rapidly, said Jim Barbaresso, vice president of intelligent transportation systems at HNTB Corp., an international construction firm.

The Transportation Department has been gathering data at pilot projects in Wyoming, Tampa, Florida, and New York City, Barbaresso said. That work builds on an earlier project in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Researchers are getting closer to making the technology work on a larger scale, he said.

“They want to encourage automation,” Barbaresso said of U.S. regulators. “They want to accelerate the regulatory process and help companies start to produce vehicles with this technology.”

In February 2014, NHTSA promised to move forward with regulations that will require cars to be able to communicate with each other to avoid crashes. So-called vehicle-to-vehicle communications has the potential to save lives on a scale of earlier innovations like seat belts and air bags, the agency said.

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