Google car’s AI brain counts as a driver, feds say

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Google car’s AI brain counts as a driver, feds say

Letter from NHTSA to Google may help pave way for fully autonomous vehicles.



The regulator 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.”

SAN FRANCISCO – Google’s pioneering effort to develop a self-driving vehicle devoid of steering wheel and pedals just got a boost from the feds.

In a Feb. 4 letter to Google Car project director Chris Urmson that was first reported by Reuters, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted it “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,” adding that “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.”

Google’s seven-year-old program has evolved from a fleet of radar- and laser-packed Lexus SUVs to now include a small two-passenger vehicle whose ultimate design will not allow passengers to drive the car. For testing purposes, however, Google is required to fit these prototypes with a temporary wheel and pedals along with a safety driver. To date, the company’s cars have driven more than 1.2 million miles in Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas.

Last year, Google’s small car was pulled over while testing in Mountain View, Calif., for driving too slowly. The image of a police officer and the car prompted online chatter about who, in this instance, was liable, the car or the human riding inside? That question remains at the heart of a coming debate about insurance regulations covering self-driving cars, especially considering more egregious infractions that involve injuries or worse.

NHTSA’s interpretation for Google of a range of federal regulations does not constitute a ruling. But it does provide insight into how the federal agency is leaning when it comes to having cars on the road whose driving is the sole responsibility of the vehicle’s various sensors and computer brain.

Google spokesman Johnny Luu says that the company is “looking into” the letter. But it’s hard not to interpret the NHTSA response, which was quietly posted on the agency’s website this week, as a small victory for the search company’s efforts to create a car that won’t require input from humans.

While tech companies and automakers alike are hot on the research trail of a range of driver-assist technology, all of them – from Ford to Tesla – are keeping the steering wheel and pedals in order to give drivers the ability to wrest control from the artificial intelligence system in case of emergency or simply out of a desire to drive.

NHTSA’s response is markedly different from the California Department of Motor Vehicle’s proposed self-driving car regulations that were announced in December. The DMV rules, which will be debated twice this year before being voted on, specifically note that autonomous vehicles must have a licensed driver in the car at all times in order to be able to take control in the case of an emergency.

In response, Urmson wrote a blog post blasting the DMV’s approach as short-sighted.

“People are telling us daily that fully self-driving cars are worth a shot,” Urmson wrote. “The status quo on our roads is simply not problem-free,  it has a real cost, not only in productivity and stress, but in lives damaged and destroyed by the mistakes of human drivers. Around the world, 1.2 million people die on the roads each year. In the U.S., 94 percent of crashes are caused by human error.”

Urmson has long said that his goal is to have self-driving cars on the road in time for his son to be able to ride in them instead of getting a license, which is roughly a four-year timeline. At the Detroit Auto Show in January, newly appointed Google Car CEO John Krafcik said “the magic leap in technology has already been made. (Autonomous car tech is) not science fiction anymore. It’s here.”

Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter @marcodellacava.

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