Machines are drivers too – US gives Google green light to let computers drive cars

11 Feb 2016

The move is a vital moment in the development of self-driving cars after 100 years of human drivers

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has given machines a ticket to drive. The road safety regulator for the US has told Google that artificial intelligence systems piloting self-driving cars can be considered the driver under federal law.

This is a major coup, not just for Google but for the entire automotive industry, which is moving inexorably towards driverless or autonomous vehicles.

Google’s self-driving car unit had submitted a proposed design for a self-driving car that had “no need for a human driver”.

‘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 its response, the NHTSA said: “NHTSA could interpret the term ‘driver’ as meaningless for purposes of Google’s SDV (self-driving vehicle), since there is no human driver, and consider Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) provisions that refer to a driver as simply inapplicable to Google’s vehicle design.

“NHTSA could interpret ‘driver’ and operator as referring to the self-driving system (SDS); or NHTSA could interpret driver’s position or driver’s designated seating position as referring to the left front outboard seating position, regardless of whether the occupant of that position is able to control the vehicle’s operation or movements.”

Green light of sorts for Google driverless cars

The head of Google’s self-driving car business, Chris Urmson, has told the auto industry that the goal is to have driverless cars available on the market by 2020.

Last year, it emerged that Google is in discussions with Ford, Toyota, Daimler, Volkswagen and General Motors.

Rival tech giant Apple is also planning its own self-driving car under a project code-named ‘Project Titan’.

The first Apple Car is expected to cost less than $40,000 and will go more than 200 miles (321km) on a single charge.

The NHTSA’s response to Google captured the historical essence of the times we are in: “We agree with Google that its SDV will not have a ‘driver’ in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than 100 years. The trend toward computer-driven vehicles began with such features as antilock brakes, electronic stability control, and airbags, continuing today with automatic emergency braking, forward crash warning, and lane departure warnings, and continuing on toward vehicles with Google’s SDV and potentially beyond.

“No human occupant of the SDV could meet the definition of ‘driver’ in Section 571.3 given Google’s described motor vehicle design – even if it were possible for a human occupant to determine the location of Google’s steering control system, and sit ‘immediately behind’ it, that human occupant would not be capable of actually driving the vehicle as described by Google.

“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,” the NHTSA said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years