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. It is a major step toward ultimately winning
approval for autonomous vehicles on the roads. In a significant precedent for Google and
other companies developing autonomous car technology, the National Highway Transportation
Safety Administration (NHTSA) has ruled that the software behind some automated cars should
be considered the driver. The decision was contained in a letter that
was sent from the federal agency to Google, now a unit within a wider company named Alphabet.
In the letter the agency says, 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.” Although the NHTSA said it agreed the software
was the driver in a Google car, it also said it had no test to evaluate whether the software
was a good one. It also said the company would have to work around federal rules requiring
cars to have basic safety features – like brake pedals.
Google told the NHTSA that human controls could paradoxically be a danger, if passengers
attempt to override the car’s own judgements and driving decisions.
If the car’s computer is the driver for legal purposes, then it clears the way for
Google or any automakers to design vehicle systems that communicate directly with the
vehicle’s artificial pilot. In January, NHTSA said it may waive some vehicle
safety rules to allow more driverless cars to operate on U.S. roads as part of a broader
effort to speed up development of self-driving vehicles.
The US Department of Transportation so far has supported Silicon Valley’s push to take
humans out of the driver’s seat, viewing it as a way to minimize traffic deaths. The
White House budget, released this week, includes $4bn over the next decade to promote the development
of self-driving cars.