In its first formal policy statement on autonomous vehicles released Thursday it made a non-binding recommendation to the states that driverless cars should not yet be allowed except for testing but acknowledged semi-autonomous features such as systems to keep cars centered in lanes and adjust their speed based on the proximity of the car ahead could save lives, The New York Times reported.
Analysts said the statement from the department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed officials recognized they had no choice but to keep up with the advancing technologies that cover a spectrum from cruise control to full automation.
"It's not that they're trying to put the brakes on it," Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., told the Times. "They're trying to get out in front of it."
However, the NHTSA made it clear it was aware of the significant gap between quickly evolving technology and often slow-moving regulation.
"Any potential regulatory action must appropriately balance the need to ensure motor vehicle safety with the flexibility to innovate," it said.