Because of this seismic shift, federal auto safety guidelines not only have to be altered to accommodate automated technology, but also to anticipate the changes ahead. That’s why the long-awaited U.S. DOT guidelines for autonomous vehicles unveiled today mark a sea change in how the federal government will approach the groundbreaking technology and also reveal a more proactive role by auto safety regulators and greater cooperation with automakers and others in the space.

Ahead of the release of the guidelines, federal officials said yesterday that automakers will be asked to voluntarily assess and submit to the DOT the design, development, testing and deployment plans for autonomous vehicles before they can be offered for sale or put into service on public roads. “The policy improves upon traditional U.S. auto regulation which relies on post-sale enforcement based on safety standards that can take many years to develop and traditionally are only put into force after new technologies have made significant market penetration,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a conference call with media yesterday ahead of today’s release of the autonomous vehicle guidelines.

Automakers will be asked to provide documentation on 15 different topics, including how autonomous driving systems detect objects, how information and alerts are displayed to drivers, testing and validation methods used to develop the technology and also cybersecurity measures. “We have to have a level of confidence that each one of the 15 has been independently reviewed, evaluated and confirmed.” Foxx said.

“This automated-vehicle policy envisions greater transparency as DOT works with manufacturers to ensure that safety is appropriately addressed on the front end of development,” Foxx added. “It’s really creating a more open-ended type of approach than we typically would.”

As part of its autonomous-vehicle policy, the U.S. DOT has also eliminated its automated-vehicle classification system and will adopt the five-level scale developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). The new guidelines would encompass all vehicles with an SAE Level 3 automated driving system or higher, which can provide full autonomy without human intervention in certain situations. NHTSA will also ask automakers for assessments of their Level 2 vehicles that combine two or more automated driving functions, such as lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control but require drivers to control steering.