Until now the feds have maintained any car without a human driver would not be considered roadworthy. The fact that the federal government is willing to count computers as drivers is a big step forward for self driving vehicles.
In a letter to the technology company Google, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has given its backing to Google’s self-driving car technology.
Here’s their new perspective, explained:
“‘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,” wrote NHTSA chief counsel, Paul Hemmersbaugh in the letter. “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.”
Karl Brauer, senior analyst for the Kelley Blue Book automotive research firm, said to Reuters that there were still significant legal questions surrounding autonomous vehicles but 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.”
This, in fact, is really the starting point on the road to seeing self-driving cars in a dealership near you. Although the federal government regulates how cars are made, the states set the rules for how they’re used. There are many sticky wickets to be figured out – such as, if a self-driving car gets in an accident, who is at fault – but this approval of roadworthiness a step that more traditional automakers haven’t been able to touch.
Title 49, Subtitle B, Chapter V, Part 571 of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, “Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards,” is a thousand-page monster that lays out, with excruciating precision, the standards manufacturers must follow for any passenger car (or bus, or motorcycle) they intend to sell. Those rules are “arguably anachronistic,” Walker Smith says, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to update.
Defining the car’s operating system as its driver brings up two big problems. The first is that many of NHTSA’s regulations explicitly refer to human anatomy. The rule regarding the car’s braking system, for example, says it “shall be activated by means of a foot control.” The rules around headlights and turn signals refer to hands. NHTSA can easily change how it interprets those rules, but there’s no reasonable way to define Google’s software—capable as it is—as having body parts.
Ensuring that their driverless fleet has regulatory approval to get on the roads is critical to Google’s car strategy. It’s a long way off, but companies outside of Detroit definitely setting the pace for the rest of an industry that seems to be flustered in how to get its message out even though they’re selling millions of units and doing financially well right now.