Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao outlined a new set of federal guidelines for self-driving vehicles Tuesday that has automakers rejoicing at a more relaxed approach, while safety lobbyists criticize weakening industry regulations.

The Transportation Department has now done away with its federal mandate requiring self-driving carmakers to gain government approval before their models are allowed on roads. It's now a voluntary process aimed at capitalizing on self-driving technology's benefits as soon as possible, Chao said.

Chao said safety remains the DoT's top priority, but autonomous driving can "augment" safety. Over 35,000 people die in car accidents each year, with 94% of accidents involving human error, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The new regulations have drawn concern from safety advocates such as Consumer Reports, which has argued that more "forceful oversight" is needed instead of the voluntary regulations now in place. The group's policy arm called Chao's new plans a "clear step backward for consumer safety that sends a troubling message about the Transportation Department's priorities under the new administration."

The regulations came the same day the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that Tesla's (TSLA) Autopilot autonomous driving feature played a major role in a fatal crash last year.

Though there is no longer a federal mandate for automakers to gain government approval before releasing self-driving models onto the road, but the guidelines recommend companies do so.

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