Google's latest designs for their self-driving car have earned the tech giant's autonomous driving software the designation of "driver" in the U.S. The decision from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) comes months after Google submitted a design proposal to the government agency describing a car with "no need for a human driver." In a letter posted to the NHTSA website, Google's self-driving vehicle (SDV) is "exclusively controlled by a Self-Driving System (SDS)" and making a human driver "meaningless" in their vehicles. As such, the "NHTSA will interpret "driver" in the context of Google's described motor vehicle design as referring to the SDS, and not to any of the vehicle occupants," the letter NHTSA letter read.
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Google's case for licensing their SDS, cited human intervention as a "detrimental to safety" in their vehicles. The claim that humans are the most dangerous variable in the equation of safety in autonomous vehicles is supported by reports from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) last fall. According to the California DMV, autonomous vehicles were involved in nine collisions in 2015 (none fatal), most of which were caused by humans not paying attention.
This is a first in the autonomous vehicle race that tech companies, including rivals Apple, and automakers are currently engaged in. Previous regulations, including the recent amendment made to the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, required SDVs to have a fully licensed driver present at all times that is "capable of taking over immediate manual control."
There is no indication that Google has applied for similar designation in any Canadian jurisdiction or that any amendments will be made to the automated vehicles pilot project in Ontario that still requires the driver to carry proof of third-party liability insurance.
While the decision by the NHTSA allows Google to proceed with development of fully autonomous vehicles that don't allow for human intervention, current federal regulations that require a steering wheel and brakes on autonomous vehicles will need to be amended before Google's new SDV can cruise public roads. In the meantime, expect the rest of Google's friends in Silicon Valley to make their case to federal regulators for licensing their software that forbids us mortals from getting involved in driving.