Exclusive: In boost to self-driving cars, U.S. tells Google computers can qualify as drivers

Tue Feb 9, 2016 8:24pm EST
 
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By David Shepardson and Paul Lienert

WASHINGTON/DETROIT (Reuters) - 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, a major step toward ultimately winning approval for autonomous vehicles on the roads.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O: Quote), of its decision in a previously unreported Feb. 4 letter to the company posted on the agency's website this week.

Google's self-driving car unit on Nov. 12 submitted a proposed design for a self-driving car that has "no need for a human driver," the letter to Google from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Chief Counsel Paul Hemmersbaugh said.

"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 said.

"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."

Major automakers and technology companies such as Google are racing to develop and sell vehicles that can drive themselves at least part of the time.

All participants in the autonomous driving race complain that state and federal safety rules are impeding testing and eventual deployment of such vehicles. California has proposed draft rules requiring steering wheels and a licensed driver in all self-driving cars.

Karl Brauer, senior analyst for the Kelley Blue Book automotive research firm, said there were still significant legal questions surrounding autonomous vehicles.   Continued...

 
A Google self-driving car is seen inside a lobby at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California November 13, 2015.  REUTERS/Stephen Lam