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Google gets its way — US agency says computers can drive cars

GOOGLE has won a major concession from the US National Highway Transportation Safety Administration that marks a watershed moment in the company’s drive to producing fully self-driving cars.

The US vehicle safety regulators now say the artificial intelligence system piloting a self-driving Google car could be considered the driver under federal law.

In November, Google filed a letter to NHTSA calling for greater clarity about the word “driver” and what requirements Google might be subject to as a result, ranging from rear-view mirrors to turn signals.

The NHTSA replied saying in a letter to the company posted on the agency’s website this week: “We agree with Google its (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,” the letter reads.

“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.”

However, it noted existing regulations requiring some auto safety equipment can not be waived immediately, including requirements for braking systems activated by foot control.

While most other carmakers are building their vehicles with steering wheels, brake pedals and other machinery in mind, Google’s robot car design will have none of these things.

While NHTSA agreed with Google that the car would be controlling the brakes, that fact “does not excuse” Google from obeying the “plain language” of the regulation, it said.

The process of rewriting federal regulations governing the design, placement and operation of vehicle controls could take months or years. Until then, Google might have to ask for an exemption from that rule.

“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,” NHTSA said.

Google is “still evaluating” NHTSA’s lengthy response, a company spokesperson said on Tuesday. Google executives have said they would likely partner with established automakers to build self-driving cars.

Google told NHTSA that the real danger is having auto safety features that could tempt humans to try to take control.

Google “expresses concern that providing human occupants of the vehicle with mechanisms to control things like steering, acceleration, braking… could be detrimental to safety because the human occupants could attempt to override the (self-driving system’s) decisions,” the NHTSA letter stated.

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