It seems that President Obama's declared push to make the US a haven for self-driving cars is already starting to bear fruit. In what may be a significant milestone, the National Hightway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA has just given Google the break it needs to move forward. In a letter sent to the company, the traffic agency agreed to one of Google's proposal to have its Self-Driving System (SDS) AI to be considered as the legal "driver" of the car, opening the doors for more legal opportunities for Google's self-driving car.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to Google's dreams of self-driving cars is the law. The fact of the matter is that legal vocabulary and thinking has not yet caught up with recent technological developments, something that the NHTSA's letter also points out. Case in point, traffic regulations require that a driver always be present inside cars cruising on public roads. The problem for Google's self-driving car is that such a kind of driver doesn't exist.
Google has sought clarification for what constitutes a "driver". Under current law, that would be someone behind the wheel who can take manual control of the car in an emergency. Again, a problem for Google as its self-driving cars don't have steering wheels at all. It has offered possible interpretations, including simply being exempt from the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) regulations or to interpret a "driver" in this case as anyone sitting on the left car seat, regardless of whether he or she can actually take control of the car manually.
The NHTSA favored Google's third, less drastic alternative. It will consider that the computer inside Google's car, and not any human occupant, as the driver of the said car. If finally put into writing, it could open the doors for more testing, especially on public roads, and could also see a change in the rules to accommodate such kinds of cars. In fact, the NHTSA does allude to a need to update the regulations to take into account more recent technologies.
That said, Google isn't completely off the hook. Just because its SDS system will be legally considered the car's driver doesn't mean Google can do whatever it wants. Of course, even its SDS will be subject to comply with the safety requirements expected of any driver, though those should also be updated to adapt to a driver that doesn't have arms or legs or isn't even human.