Regulators: Google’s Computers Can Be Considered Drivers In Autonomous Vehicles

Just a month after federal regulators took steps to ease restrictions for self-driving cars, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has let one tech company know that its artificial intelligence system could be considered an actual driver under federal law. 

Reuters reports that NHTSA recently informed Google that it had determined the AI system piloting its self-driving car would be the vehicle’s legal “driver,” eliminating the need for an actual human in the car.

The decision, written by NHTSA chief counsel Paul Hemmersbaugh, was a response to a proposed design that Google submitted to the agency in November that called for a self-driving car that had “no need for a human driver.”

“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,” NHTSA’s response to Google stated. “We agree with Google, its (self-driving car) will not have a ‘driver’ in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years.”

While this is not an explicit approval of Google’s driverless car, it is a necessary step toward the inevitable okay for a vehicle that does not need any sort of human supervision on the road. Currently, Google’s self-driving vehicles, which can operate fully autonomously, are required to have a human driver inside, as well as several accoutrements – like a steering wheel and pedals – that allow the human driver to take control of the vehicle if needed.

In its proposal to NHTSA, Google raised concerns “that providing human occupants of the vehicle with mechanisms to control things like steering, acceleration, braking… could be detrimental to safety because the human occupants could attempt to override the (self-driving system’s) decisions.”

Hemmersbaugh said that tests would have to prove the extra safety features aren’t needed before federal regulations could be rewritten to allow any company to offer cars without the mechanisms.

While NHTSA’s decision is a big step forward in autonomous driving technology, Reuters points out there is still a long way to go before cars without drivers, steering wheels, and other traditional aspects are tooling around the country.

“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 in its letter.

Exclusive: In boost to self-driving cars, U.S. tells Google computers can qualify as drivers [Reuters]