The US is clearing the way for self-driving cars without a steering wheel

DETROIT. The federal motor vehicle safety regulators have cleared the way for the production and deployment of self-driving vehicles that do not have manual controls such as a steering wheel or pedals.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Thursday released final rules removing the requirement that cars with automated driving systems or self-driving vehicles include these conventional controls.

That 155-page, “first of its kind” ruling allows companies to create and deploy autonomous vehicles without manual control, as long as they comply with other safety regulations. Current self-driving cars in small numbers in the U.S. today typically include manual overrides for backup drivers and meet federal safety standards.

“In the 2020s, an important part of USDOT’s safety mission will be to ensure that safety standards keep up with developments in automated driving and driver assistance systems,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “This new regulation is an important step in setting robust safety standards for ADS-equipped vehicles.”

The new rule emphasizes that self-driving vehicles “must continue to provide the same high level of occupant protection as modern passenger cars.” Companies still must comply with other safety standards, as well as federal, state, and local regulations, in order to actually launch and operate self-driving vehicles on US roads.

In a published version of the rule signed by NHTSA Deputy Administrator Stephen S. Cliff, the agency wrote that it “sought to make it clear that a manufacturer of ADS-equipped vehicles must continue to apply occupant protection standards to their vehicles even if manual steering is not installed on vehicle.”

The ruling, first proposed in March 2020, comes a month after General Motors and its self-driving car division Cruise requested permission from NHTSA to build and deploy a self-driving, non-manual vehicle called Cruise Origin.

GM and Cruise have previously said they plan to begin manufacturing and deploying the Origin in early 2023.

According to the NHTSA, GM and Cruise are among about 30 companies or organizations allowed to test highly automated or self-driving vehicles on U.S. roads. These companies, along with Alphabet’s Waymo, are considered to be among the leaders in self-driving cars.

At an Autonomy Day event in 2019, Tesla CEO Elon Musk promised that his company would release a car without a steering wheel within two years.

Although it hadn’t happened yet, Musk said at the time, “Once the regulators are happy that we don’t have a steering wheel, we’ll just remove it. There is a 100% chance that the steering wheel will be taken away.”

— CNNBC Laura Kolodny contributed to this report.

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