Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and a Chevrolet Bolt EV at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Thursday, where he announced an initiative on self-driving vehicles.
PAUL SANCYA / ASSOCIATED PRESS
DETROIT — With automakers and technology companies rushing to develop self-driving cars, the Obama administration on Thursday pledged to expedite regulatory guidelines for autonomous vehicles and invest in research to help bring them to market.
Until now, the federal government has taken a hands-off approach to regulating new technology that allows vehicles to operate independently and without an actual driver.
But in an announcement here at the North American International Auto Show, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the government would remove hurdles to developing autonomous vehicles and set further guidelines for them within six months.
“We are bullish on autonomous vehicles,” Mr. Foxx said. “The actions we are taking today bring us up to speed.”
The government’s new support includes a request in President Obama’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year for $4 billion, to be spent over 10 years, to finance research projects and infrastructure improvements tied to driverless cars. Mr. Foxx said that autonomous vehicles had the potential to reduce traffic accidents and significantly improve safety on America’s roads. He estimated that as many as 25,000 deaths could have been avoided last year if driverless technology had been in widespread use.
“We are entering a new world here, and we know it,” he said.
At the announcement, Mr. Foxx was flanked by executives of several carmakers and tech companies, including Google, which has been testing its autonomous vehicles on California roads since last year.
The executives welcomed the government’s proposed investment and its fast-track approach to developing a framework for regulating driverless models.
“It takes real collaboration with our regulators so this is done right and done safely,” said Mark Reuss, head of global product development at General Motors, the nation’s largest auto manufacturer.
Mr. Foxx said the government expected to issue guidance to companies within six months on the functions that autonomous vehicles must be able to perform to be considered safe.
He said the government already had authority to allow limited deployment of 2,500 autonomous vehicles by an individual company for a two-year period.
In addition, he urged companies to seek interpretations of existing federal vehicle standards from regulators for new technologies under development.
He cited one such case, in which regulators recently confirmed that a remote, self-parking system developed by the German automaker BMW met federal standards.
“This is the right way to drive innovation,” said Mr. Foxx, adding that federal regulators were also working with various states to create a consistent national policy for driverless cars.
Several automakers have vowed to have autonomous cars ready for consumers to buy within the next 10 years.
But without guidance from regulators, companies have been uncertain about the legal environment that awaits their new vehicles. “The industry is anxious to have a framework, particularly in terms of safety,” Mr. Reuss said.
Mr. Foxx declined to say whether he expected bipartisan support for the proposed $4 billion driverless-car investment in the president’s budget.
He also said the government needed to address other related issues about the vehicles over the next six months.
“There are liability issues that need to be thought through,” he said. “We’ve got to do several things at once.”
The cooperative stance taken between regulators and carmakers is also extending to other areas involving vehicle safety.
On Friday, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will hold another meeting with auto executives to draft voluntary measures by carmakers to improve safety.
The meeting is expected to complete several new safety measures, such as how companies can increase the number of vehicle owners who take recalled models in for repairs, according to one official briefed on the subject.
Mark R. Rosekind, head of the safety agency, has been working closely with the auto companies on the voluntary measures after a record number of safety recalls over the last two years.
He and Mr. Foxx are expected to announce the safety initiatives in an appearance Friday at the auto show.
Correction: January 15, 2016
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred incompletely to President Obama’s $4 billion request for driverless car research. While the request is included in his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, it would be spent over 10 years, not one year.
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