Barack Obama just welcomed driverless cars

Lynsey Barber
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Uber is spearheading driverless car tests in the US (Source: Getty)

The US President Barack Obama is on board with driverless cars, welcoming the technology's potential for increasing safety and reducing pollution on roads across the US as the country announces new rules for the vehicles.

"In the seven-and-a-half years of my presidency, self-driving cars have gone from sci-fi fantasy to an emerging reality with the potential to transform the way we live," he said in an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the local newspaper of the City where Uber is pioneering landmark testing of driverless car.

Obama unveiled a new policy for the technology which is being worked on by several major companies, from Apple and Google to Volvo and Ford, that he said "were flexible and designed to evolve with new advances" but would protect public safety.

Read more: Cars will go the way of DVDs in a decade

"Safer, more accessible driving. Less congested, less polluted roads. That’s what harnessing technology for good can look like. But we have to get it right. Americans deserve to know they’ll be safe today even as we develop and deploy the technologies of tomorrow," he said.

"There are always those who argue that government should stay out of free enterprise entirely, but I think most Americans would agree we still need rules to keep our air and water clean, and our food and medicine safe. That’s the general principle here. What’s more, the quickest way to slam the brakes on innovation is for the public to lose confidence in the safety of new technologies."

The new policy will include a 15-point checklist for companies working on the technology and guidance for joined-up state level regulation.

The checklist will apply to all parts of the process - design, development, testing, and deployment - and car manufacturers will have to submit the safety assessment before hitting the roads

Read more: The world's first driverless taxis have hit the road (beating Uber)

Obama also hailed the technology's potential to disrupt the labour force.

"Even as we focus on the safety of automated vehicles, we know that this technology, as with any new technology, has the potential to create new jobs and render other jobs obsolete. So it’s critical that we also provide new resources and job training to prepare every American for the good-paying jobs of tomorrow," he said.

Semi-autonomous cars

The new policy also includes clarification of rules on semi-automated driving systems and its powers to recall cars which put people's safety at risk. A White House statement on the new rules said:

"In particular, it emphasises that semi-automated driving systems – ones in which the human continues to monitor the driving environment and perform some of the driving task – that fail to adequately account for the possibility that a distracted or inattentive driver-occupant might fail to retake control of the vehicle in a safety-critical situation may be defined as an unreasonable risk to safety and subject to recall."

Obama said: "If a self-driving car isn’t safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road. We won’t hesitate to protect the American public’s safety."

Read more: Uber vs black cabs row proves one thing - driverless cars are the future

While Uber and others' driverless car technology is at the trial stage, technology which takes some of the control from motorists is becoming more widespread.

Tesla's autopilot technology, one of the most high-profile real-life applications of it, has raised concerns, however, after two fatal crashes which have been allegedly linked to the technology. The car firm founded by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk last week announced an upgrade to autopilot which will have greater reliance on radar in addition to image recognition cameras.

Uber rival Lyft yesterday unveiled an ambitious manifesto for the future of transport in which chief executive and founder John Zimmer