The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration––the U.S. vehicle safety regulator––has said the driverless computer Google created to pilot its self-driving cars can be considered, under federal law, “a driver.” The implications of this are huge, as Google and other tech companies develop vehicles that could make human drivers obsolete.
NHTSA originally sent its interpretations of the rules to Google’s Self-Driving Car Project on February 4, in response to a letter the tech giant sent late last year. But it was only this week that the federal regulator posted its response online.
“If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle,” the letter reads, “it is more reasonable to identify the ‘driver’ as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving.”
NHTSA said the move to driverless cars began with antilock brakes, air bags, automatic-emergency braking, and, most recently, with crash- and lane-departure warnings. In this trend, the regulator acknowledges, it is perfectly logical that technology continue with driverless cars, “and potentially beyond.”
The issue is complex—and, at its core, addresses our relationships with our vehicles: the way we drive, brake, or even change lanes. Some vehicle-safety laws are so specific NHTSA says it would have to completely revisit or overturn them. Take rearview mirrors for example: Google seems to argue that a rearview mirror in a driverless car is unnecessary. It also argues that standard equipment like hand levers for turn signals and brake pedals could be hazardous because the human driver might interfere with the car’s self-piloted operation. The company has built at least one version of its driverless car without brake pedals or a steering wheel.
While NHTSA acknowledged that many of Google’s concerns may have to be addressed through new laws, it did make an interpretation of the larger issue: Who drives a driverless car?
NHTSA’s answer seems to be quite clear: “In this instance, an item of motor vehicle equipment, the SDS (Google’s Self-Driving System), is actually driving the vehicle.”