You will soon have a new neighbour on the streets, American regulator NHTSA will consider Google’s self-driving cars as “driver”

In what may be considered as a significant milestone and major boost to technology giant Google, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has just given the search giant the break it needs to move forward. U.S. vehicle safety regulators have said the artificial intelligence system piloting a self-driving Google car could be considered the driver under federal law.

In a letter sent to the company, the traffic agency agreed to one of Google’s proposal to have its Self-Driving System (SDS) AI to be considered as the legal “driver” of the car, opening the doors for more legal opportunities for Google’s self-driving car.

Google’s self-driving car unit on November 12 submitted a proposed design for a self-driving car that has “no need for a human driver,” the letter to Google from NHTSA Chief Counsel Paul Hemmersbaugh said.

“NHTSA will interpret ‘driver’ in the context of Google’s described motor vehicle design as referring to the [self-driving system], and not to any of the vehicle occupants,” the regulator wrote. “We agree with Google its [self-driving vehicle] will not have a ‘driver’ in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years.”

It continued: “If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the ‘driver’ as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving. In this instance, an item of motor vehicle equipment, the [self-driving system], is actually driving the vehicle.”

Google’s autonomous cars doesn’t depend on human operators and lack ordinary input methods, like the steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, parking brake, turn signals and mirrors. Basically, it doesn’t have anything a human driver requires for piloting a car.

The regulator said that some of Google’s questions went beyond its ability to test the proposals. The company “may also wish to reconsider” its insistence on removing controls such as steering wheels entirely, which is not necessary to achieve full autonomy, the regulator added.

Major automakers and technology companies such as Google are competing to develop and sell vehicles that can drive themselves at least part of the time.

All participants in the autonomous driving race complain that state and federal safety rules are obstructing testing and eventual deployment of such vehicles. California has proposed draft rules requiring steering wheels and a licensed driver in all self-driving cars.

“The next question is whether and how Google could certify that the (self-driving system) meets a standard developed and designed to apply to a vehicle with a human driver,” NHTSA said.

Senior analyst for the Kelley Blue Book automotive research firm, Karl Brauer said there were still important legal questions surrounding autonomous vehicles.

“However, if NHTSA is prepared to name artificial intelligence as a viable alternative to human-controlled vehicles, it could substantially streamline the process of putting autonomous vehicles on the road. Questions of fault and liability will remain, but if a computer driver has the same legal rights as a human driver it could allow car companies, and tech companies, to quickly deploy autonomous vehicles on public roads, both for testing purposes and even public use,” he said.

Developed by Google X as part of its project to develop technology for mainly electric cars, Google self-driving car is any in a range of autonomous cars. The software installed in Google’s cars is called Google Chauffeur.

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