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2/10/2016
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NHTSA: Google's AI 'Driver' Can Qualify For US Roads

In a letter to the search giant, the NHTSA indicates its support for Google's self-driving vehicles by stating the computer that pilots the car can be considered a driver.

Google, Tesla, Nissan: 6 Self-Driving Vehicles Cruising Our Way
Google, Tesla, Nissan: 6 Self-Driving Vehicles Cruising Our Way
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

In a letter to Google's Chris Urmson, the director of the company's self-driving car project, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concludes that it would consider the company's self-driving vehicles (SDVs) as having a driver under federal regulations, despite being controlled by a computer.

This means that self-driving or autonomous vehicles are a step closer to America's highways.

Google's SDVs are fully autonomous, meaning that the operations of these vehicles are controlled exclusively by a self-driving system (SDS), according to the search giant.

The SDS is an artificial-intelligence (AI) driver, which is a computer designed into the motor vehicle itself that controls all aspects of driving by perceiving its environment and responding to it.

Now, according to the NHTSA, that's enough to qualify for driving.

(Image: Google)

(Image: Google)

"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," according to the NHTSA, which was released this week. "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 cars are designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.

Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip, and includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles.

In order to determine where to place vehicle devices and features, or whether to provide them at all, Google asked who or what is to be considered the driver and which seating position is considered to be the driver's seating position in its SDV.

"The next question is whether and how Google could certify that the (self-driving system) meets a standard developed and designed to apply to a vehicle with a human driver," according to the NHTSA.

In addition to the NHSTA's decision, Google is also making strides with real-world testing in the US, and also in the UK, where it is working with London's transport authority to begin testing autonomous vehicles on the capital city's streets.

[Read about Ford's efforts to create a self-driving car.]

Earlier this month, Google announced it was expanding its testing plans stateside by bringing its automated Lexus RX450h SUVs to Kirkland, Wash.

"After self-driving 1.4 million miles, we're ready to give our cars more experience driving in new environments, traffic patterns, and road conditions," the company detailed in a Feb. 3 blog post.

In January, President Obama proposed a $4 billion budget to accelerate pilot program testing of self-driving vehicles over the next decade, in a move to spur acceptance of these vehicles on the nation's highways.

Because each state has its own set of driving regulations, the NHTSA, in conjunction with state government officials and car manufacturers, would aim to create templates for possible regulations and laws that ultimately each state could consider adopting, according to a Washington Post report.

While self-driving cars might be the future of the auto industry, humans still play a huge role behind the wheel. In January Google filed a report revealing that its self-driving car fleet needed human help 341 times over 424,000 miles.

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Nathan Eddy is a freelance writer for InformationWeek. He has written for Popular Mechanics, Sales & Marketing Management Magazine, FierceMarkets, and CRN, among others. In 2012 he made his first documentary film, The Absent Column. He currently lives in Berlin. View Full Bio

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jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
2/19/2016 | 11:23:28 AM
Re: It may be a driver, but...
In the end, machines are extensions of those who use them (they have no will of their own, even now), but there is a related interesting point: to what extent should developers of auto driving software be liable for accidents caused by vehicles under its control?  Personally, I think the owner/operator of the self driving vehicle should be held responsible for its operation, but it can be proven that an accident was caused by defective programming, the vendor should be liable (suable by the owner of the vehicle), and be required to fix the bug as a condition of the sofrware retaining its license.

I should  note that I too have qualms about this, being all too familiar with the fallibility of both programmers (I am one) and their employers/clients.  If an individual driver can cause an accident by making an honest mistake, how many accidents can the programmer of an automotive AI cause by doing so?  How about a faulty design, properly executed?  Note that as the old, but very true saw goes, "There is always one more bug".
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
2/18/2016 | 8:35:33 PM
Re: It may be a driver, but...
My question would be who's responsible when someone else's self driven car hits my car. The human driver or Google and its programmed computer driver? This is a hot mess of legislation waiting to happen. How safe do you feel with AI drivers as opposed to human drivers soon to be on your roads?
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
2/11/2016 | 4:52:28 PM
Re: Evolution still needed...
I totally believe that eventually AI-based drivers will be better than human ones. I just don't think we're quite there yet. When these vehicles do perform at a very high level, then it will be clear human drivers are obsolete. 

It just doesn't seem like we're there yet. I think we'll know when that moment comes. 
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
2/11/2016 | 1:54:18 PM
It may be a driver, but...
...it would be up to individual states to issue the driver's license.  In practice, I would expect that to be "street legal", the AI would have to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the appropriate officers that it knows how to drive; and can be trusted to avoid accidents and to comply with all traffic laws.  I would also assume that if the program is modified or replaced by the owner of the vehicle or anyone else, that it would need to be recertified by the state.

Not an easy task by any stretch.
GAProgrammer
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GAProgrammer,
User Rank: Ninja
2/11/2016 | 11:02:01 AM
Dangerous terminology....
The US Government should think over this very hard....the term "driver" has lots of legal implications, in insurace contracts, police enforcement documentation. They should definitely stick to the "autopilot" or "pilot" moniker, or they risk creating millions, maybe billions, of dollars in administrative costs for private industry in a time when the US economy is already having issues. The legal ramifications are far reaching and as usual, they are being short-sighted to accomodate a technology.

It's one thing to say that it's okay to have an autopiloted vehicle on the road (which I applaud)...it is another thing entirely to call that autopilot a "driver".
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
2/10/2016 | 3:55:14 PM
Iím not holding my breath
I'll be impressed when I can leave the tavern, get into the car and save "home, Jeeves", smile at the officer on duty outside, and nod off until the car wakes me up when I arrive home.

Also, will this mean that when I'm in autodrive, as I will be ALL the time as I don't like driving, will I be able to work, watch TV, and do anything and everything else not related to driving? If there is an accident, I assume I will have no liability AT ALL, because I will have had NOTHING to do with piloting the vehicle.
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Ninja
2/10/2016 | 12:43:09 PM
Evolution still needed...

I am so excited to see this become a reality it will open the world to so many who have disabilities and the elderly. However it is not encouraging that so much human intervention is required it limits its audience and the safety aspect of self-driving cars. Hopefully it will evolve beyond this point in the future.

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