The Obama administration has cleared the way for autonomous cars, but left open the debate over how to make them safe.

The Transportation Department rolled out suggested guidelines on Tuesday for the development and testing of self-driving technology. The effort is a first step toward establishing federal safety standards while giving developers leeway to innovate as the technology changes rapidly.

The guidelines, put out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, include a 15-point “safety assessment” that developers would voluntarily submit to the government for review. At some point, the agency said, it might impose mandatory safety rules that would be enforceable.

NHTSA's new guidelines cover such issues as how the car communicates with passengers about when autonomous features are engaged, how it understands different traffic laws, and how it prevents hackers from taking control of the vehicle. NHTSA also suggests that manufacturers build in “driver engagement monitoring” into autonomous systems. But neither the assessment nor the monitoring is required.

Consumer Reports and other safety advocates have urged companies and the government to proceed cautiously, and have warned against the deployment of autonomous features before they have been adequately tested and can be used safely by consumers.

"Consumers need more than just guidelines,” says Marta Tellado, the president and CEO of Consumer Reports. “This new policy comes with a lot of bark, but not enough bite. While these technologies have the potential to save lives, there must be strong federal standards to protect all drivers. We can’t just leave it to the states to do the hard work of deciding whether to let a self-driving car on public roads.”

Automated vehicle technologies, including those that can steer, brake, and control a car’s speed, are developing at a rapid pace. Several auto manufacturers, including Tesla, Mercedes, BMW, Hyundai, and Volvo, already have semi-autonomous systems in vehicles on the road. Vehicles with Tesla’s Autopilot system engaged have been involved in several accidents, including a fatality in Florida earlier this year when the car crashed into a tractor-trailer. Tesla has also drawn criticism from Consumer Reports and other auto-safety advocates for marketing the system as more capable than it actually is.

NHTSA frequently cites data showing that human error is the critical factor in 94 percent of crashes, and states that autonomous technology has significant promise to address these incidents.

President Barack Obama, a strong advocate of driverless cars, voiced his support in an editorial published Tuesday in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Automated vehicles have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives each year,” he wrote. “And right now, for too many senior citizens and Americans with disabilities, driving isn’t an option. Automated vehicles could change their lives.

“But we have to get it right,” he continued. “Americans deserve to know they’ll be safe today even as we develop and deploy the technologies of tomorrow.”

Consumer Reports supports the development of autonomous technology but believes these cars won’t be widely accepted until consumers can trust they are safe. “We urge the Transportation Department to move quickly to put actual safety standards in place for how these systems are designed and tested, before these vehicles wind up on the road," Tellado says.