It’s premature to regulate the self-driving vehicles being tested by companies such as General Motors Co. and Waymo, the U.S. government’s top auto safety official said.

“At this point the technology is so nascent I don’t think it is appropriate today to regulate this technology,” Heidi King, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in an interview. “It’s not there yet, but each and every day we are open to identifying when the time is right.”

King’s comment reaffirms the agency’s commitment to a hands-off approach to rules for autonomous vehicles that safety advocates have criticized for being too lax.

The Uber Technologies Inc. self-driving crossover that struck and killed a pedestrian in March fueled fresh calls for oversight, and Senate Democrats have slowed legislation in the chamber that would ease the path for companies to put more self-driving vehicles on the road.

King: “The technology is so nascent I don’t think it is appropriate today to regulate this technology.” Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

King said NHTSA is focused on removing barriers to autonomous vehicles posed by existing rules. The agency earlier this year issued a request for comment from industry to identify problematic vehicle standards.

NHTSA is willing to use its defect investigation, recall and other enforcement powers to curb dangers that emerge from self-driving vehicles, King said. Of greater concern, she added, are the “old enemies” of road safety: drunk driving and not wearing a seat belt, which are involved in thousands of traffic fatalities in the U.S. each year.

“In the grand scheme of things in saving lives, impaired drivers and flawed human choices are still the big problems we need to solve as a nation,” she said.

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