Google’s driverless cars can qualify as drivers, says US regulator

Development of driverless and connected vehicle technology is continuing apace, and government regulations must be ahead of these developments or risk stifling a promising new industry.

A code of practice announced by the UK’s Department for Transport last year provides the industry with a framework to safely trial cars on public roads and in public places.

In the US, meanwhile, legislation to allow tests of driverless cars on public roads has been passed in Virginia, California, Nevada, Florida and Michigan, as well as Washington, D.C. And now the country’s vehicle safety regulator has said that Google’s self-driving cars will be legally treated like human drivers.

This is a major step towards winning approval for autonomous vehicles on US public roads, according to news agency Reuters, which reported on the letter from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) chief counsel Paul Hemmersbaugh.

The letter to Google states that NHTSA “will interpret ‘driver’ in the context of Google’s described motor vehicle design as referring to the SDS (self-driving system), and not to any of the vehicle occupants. We agree with Google its SDV (self-driving vehicle) will not have a ‘driver’ in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years.”

So far, government regulations have required self-driving cars to be equipped with human-controlled parts like steering wheels and brakes, with a licensed human driver who can take control of the vehicle if necessary.

The new definition of ‘driver’ could pave the way for some of this equipment to be removed, Forbes reported.

Karl Brauer, senior analyst for automotive research firm Kelley Blue Book, told Reuters that there were still legal issues about autonomous vehicles that need to be settled.

But if US regulators are prepared to accept artificial intelligence as a viable alternative to human control, “it could substantially streamline the process of putting autonomous vehicles on the road,” he said.

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