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Self-driving car development is booming, but don't expect the government to regulate it

The DOT and NHTSA under Elaine Chao plan to let self-driving car developers regulate themselves.

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Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao outlined her agency's plan for self-driving car regulations during a presentation at the 2020 CES show in Las Vegas.

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This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

In the early days of any new technology, it's reasonable to expect that things will be a little like the wild west -- unregulated and exciting, even a little sketchy -- but as the space grows and matures, so too should the oversight and scrutiny that it receives.

This has been true of self-driving car development, too. People started out by repurposing tons of equipment and software, piling it into a car and seeing how long they could go without touching the steering wheel. We're way past that now, and the amount of money being poured into the space by automakers and huge technology companies is proof of that.

So, where then is the regulation? Well, if US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao's CES 2020 keynote is an indicator -- and we suspect it is -- it might not be coming. Specifically, Chao outlined the Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's "AV 4.0" plan, and it's almost shockingly light on hard and fast regulations.

The government's position is that regulating the self-driving car industry more thoroughly would stifle the progress being made and that if the US wants to be a leader in that space, we need to let developers run free. This line of thought goes directly against the recommendations of another major government agency: the National Transportation Safety Board -- aka the agency that has to investigate things when an autonomous test car crashes.

The NTSB actually publicly condemned the current administration as well as numerous state governments back in November for failing to effectively regulate the development of autonomous vehicles. It even went so far as to say that Chao's NHTSA has prioritized autonomous vehicle advancement over saving lives, according to a report published Wednesday by the Associated Press.

"The manufacturers are not going to be objective in evaluating their own safety assessments," said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt, during a Senate hearing in November. "There needs to be a federal look at these assessments to make sure that they are done properly."

Currently, states like Arizona, California, Florida and Pennsylvania are serving as hubs of development and on-road testing for self-driving cars, so barring any change of tack from the federal government, it will be up to the states to enforce safety protocols. But, with the exception of California, it's hard to say if that will happen.

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