In a major milestone for Google's self-driving car efforts — and the entire autonomous car industry — the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has said in a letter that the computer inside Google's self-driving car can be considered the "driver" of the vehicle.
This has the potential to pave the way for Google's car, which has no steering wheel or pedals, to hit the streets in a broader capacity. The letter, which seems to struggle at times to adapt self-driving car technology to existing safety regulations, nonetheless largely interprets the regulations as to apply to "whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving." In the case of Google's car, a piece of the car itself — called the Self-Driving System — is doing the driving.
The ruling is very preliminary. It came about as part of a request from Google to NHTSA to interpret how a number of provisions in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards apply to Google's self-driving cars.
the regulations aren't equipped to deal with self-driving cars
The rules have been in place for decades and assume that there is a human driver in control of the vehicle, behind a wheel and pedals. That's not the case for Google's vision of the autonomous vehicle future. In the case of its most advanced vehicle, the car has no steering wheel and pedals at all.
NHTSA also notes that in many cases, the regulations simply aren't equipped to deal with autonomous cars and it will take other actions to change them. For example, because some regulations require foot or hand controls — and the self-driving system does not have feet nor hands — Google's car can never be in compliance with those parts of the regulations. Other regulations require turn signals to be self-canceling when the steering wheel is turned back to straight. But that regulation is impossible to meet in a car without a steering wheel. It's likely that these concerns will be addressed in the future.
"The intricate maze of legal questions surrounding autonomous vehicles is as big a hurdle to their arrival as the remaining technological challenges," says Kelley Blue Book automotive industry analyst Karl Brauer. "However, 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."
Google declined to comment.