Feds will consider Google computer to be car’s driver

Craig Trudell and Jack Clark
Bloomberg News

Google Inc.’s artificial-intelligence system will be interpreted as a driver by federal regulators, a step toward compliance that would help the tech giant’s self-driving cars hit U.S. roads.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agrees with Google that its cars “will not have a driver’ in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than 100 years,” the agency said in a Feb. 4 letter to Chris Urmson, director of the company’s self-driving car project. Google asked NHTSA in a November letter for interpretation of safety standards in cars it seeks to produce without traditional controls, such as a steering wheel or throttle and brake pedals.

“If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the driver as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving,” Paul Hemmersbaugh, NHTSA’s chief counsel, said in the letter. In Google’s case, its self-driving system “is actually driving the vehicle,” he wrote.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said on Wednesday that the interpretation doesn’t give automakers free rein: “We are taking great care to embrace innovations that can boost safety and improve efficiency on our roadways. Our interpretation that the self-driving computer system of a car could, in fact, be a driver is significant. But the burden remains on self-driving car manufacturers to prove that their vehicles meet rigorous federal safety standards.”

Google is examining NHTSA’s letter and will come up with a plan for how it proceeds, said Johnny Luu, a company spokesman.

“The government will have to study the capabilities of Google’s autonomous tech and be convinced it doesn’t represent a danger,” Karl Brauer, an analyst with researcher Kelley Blue Book, said in an email. “That might take a while if it involves a permanent change to the vehicle code, but the process of getting an exemption would be easier and quicker.”

Alphabet Inc.’s Google is getting mixed signals from federal and state regulators on the path to putting its self-driving cars on the road. California has said the cars aren’t smart enough yet to be sold to the public without a steering wheel, brake pedals, and a licensed driver behind the wheel. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx last month said automakers will be allowed to apply for exemptions to certain rules as part of an approach to ensure government doesn’t stand in the way of technological progress.

NHTSA sees promise in autonomous-driving technologies helping to bring down the more than 30,000 deaths from motor-vehicle crashes in the U.S. every year. Foxx last month announced a a $4 billion grant program over 10 years to fund pilot projects with automated vehicles.