NHTSA Rules That AIs Qualify As Drivers For Google's Self-Driving Cars

Feb 10, 2016 01:22 PM EST | John Nassivera

Google just won big with its self-driving car project, as the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has ruled that the vehicle's artificial intelligence could be considered the driver under federal law.

The decision follows almost three months after the search giant's autonomous car unit submitted a proposed design to the agency for a self-driving car that doesn't need a human behind the wheel ready to take over if necessary, according to Reuters. The NHTSA gave Google its decision in a previously unreported letter sent on Feb. 4.

"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. We agree with Google its (self-driving cars) will not have a 'driver' in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last most than one hundred years," NHTSA Chief Counsel Paul Hemmersbaugh said in the letter.

While Google's self-driving car prototypes are currently capable of fully operating on their own, they still need to have a human inside them, along with a steering wheel and pedals for when the person would need to take over, Ars Technica reported.

However, the NHTSA's letter notes that these features could present safety issues because the human could decide to try and take control, which could conflict with the car's system. Hemmersbaugh said that federal rules requiring this equipment would have to be rewritten in order for Google to provide Google with it.

The decision is also good news for automakers and other companies working on self-driving technology, as they argue that the current state and federal safety rules keep them from developing the technology further.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said in January at the Detroit Auto Show that they would be willing to make some changes to these regulations in order to fix this issue, with transport chief Anthony Foxx revealing a six-month initiative that would spend $3.9 billion on innovation and bringing self-driving cars to U.S. roads over the next decade, Quartz noted. The NHTSA also revealed its intent to update its autonomous vehicle policies at the event.

A Google spokesperson said Tuesday that the company is "still evaluating" the NHTSA's response, Reuters reported. While the agency's decision is a win for Google and other companies looking to put self-driving cars on the road, more work needs to be done.

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

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