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NHTSA Defines Google’s Autonomous Vehicle Technology as Driver

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Google's self-driving car

Google’s prototype self-driving car, courtesy of Google’s blog

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will allow Google’s self-driving vehicle system to be considered a driver under federal law, David Shepardson and Paul Lienert reported for Reuters, noting that that’s a huge step towards autonomous vehicles being allowed on the roads. Several states already have approved the testing of self-driving vehicles, but it will be several years at least before the vehicles are ready and approved to come to market.

Streamlining the Process

Many of those working on self-driving cars have expressed frustration with state and federal rules, saying they impede testing of the vehicles and could slow down the eventual marketing of them. However, NHTSA’s defining of the self-driving system as the vehicle’s driver “could substantially streamline the process of putting autonomous vehicles on the road,” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst for the automotive research firm Kelley Blue Book.

The news of the “driver” designation appeared in a previously unreported February 4 letter from NHTSA to Google (a unit of Alphabet, Inc.) that the agency posted this week on its website. The letter said that on Nov. 12, 2015, Google submitted a proposed design for a self-driving car that has no need for a human driver.

The letter to Google, written by NHTSA Chief Counsel Paul Hemmersbaugh, said:

NHTSA will interpret ‘driver’ in the context of Google’s described motor vehicle design as referring to the SDS [self-driving system], and not to any of the vehicle occupants. We agree with Google its SDV [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. […]  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 SDS, is actually driving the vehicle. 

Safety Features

Reuters reports that Google is concerned about self-driving vehicles being required to have safety features that “could tempt humans” to try to take over the controls. If humans were able to do that, it could compromise safety and possibly lead to accidents, as the humans would be overriding the self-driving system’s decisions, the NHTSA letter said. Hemmersbaugh said that before Google could offer cars with such features as steering wheels and brake pedals, federal regulations would need to be rewritten.

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