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How Google's self-driving cars now qualify as legal drivers

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has given Google its first critical go-ahead to continue developing autonomous vehicles. 

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Google co-founder Sergey Brin listens to California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. during a bill signing for driverless cars at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012.

Eric Risberg/Associated Press

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Driverless cars are now one step closer to being on the road legally.

US vehicle safety regulators recently told Google that its artificial intelligence system qualifies as a legal driver when it comes to autonomous cars – the critical first feat in a long line of regulatory hurdles ahead.

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As reported by Reuters, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency, responded Thursday to a petition filed by Google’s Chris Urmson, the director of the tech giant’s self-driving car project, in November.

"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," NHTSA's letter read.

According to NHTSA Chief Counsel Paul Hemmersbaugh, Google’s petition said that there’s “no need for a human driver” given the design of the autonomous vehicles.

"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,” the agency responded.

Karl Brauer, senior analyst for the Kelley Blue Book automotive research firm, told Reuters that the NHTSA’s acceptance of AI “could substantially streamline the process of putting autonomous vehicles on the road” – perhaps even meeting Google’s goal of 2020.

But while an OK from the feds is a major feat for Google and the handful of other companies also interested in the driverless car market, a multitude of legal steps remain. The NHTSA pointed to a myriad of regulatory standards for car safety equipment, many of which must be rewritten in order to pertain to driverless cars.

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

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For instance, there are requirements for braking to be activated by foot control. Yet Google maintains that allowing human occupants to override the AI system, which is supposed to always make the safest decisions, may actually be dangerous.

Without a steering wheel, brake pedals, or throttle, Google’s prototype is completely controlled by an AI software that uses lasers, sensors, and radars to respond quickly and rationally to its environment.

According to Fortune magazine’s examination of the prototype up close and in action, lasers, radar, and sensors give the vehicle’s computer a 360-degree "view" of its environment to the point that it can recognize objects up to two football fields away.

Despite the prevailing safety concerns, NHTSA said it may waive certain vehicle safety rules to allow for the faster development of driverless technology.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx even told Reuters that the administration may seek special authority to promote the distribution of autonomous cars "in large numbers” after they’ve been officially deemed safe.

The legal obstacles ahead for driverless cars have not deterred Google and companies like Ford from advancing their technologies. The latter has been testing its fully autonomous cars in a fake city in Michigan while Google has expanded its testing grounds to Austin, Tex., and soon to Kirkland, Wash.