Google grabs NHTSA safety exec for self-driving cars project

Google has poached a US highway safety executive to work on its driverless cars program, NHTSA deputy director Ron Medford, to better guide its autonomous cars through evolving legislation. Medford, who has worked at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since 2003, will jump ship to Google's automotive division from January 7, 2013, as the new Director of Safety for Self-Driving Cars.

"Deputy Administrator Medford brings a long history of working on safety issues involving automobiles and other consumer products," an NHTSA spokesperson said in a statement to Wired, "and will use that experience at Google." Prior to his position at the NHTSA, Medford worked at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, where he was Assistant Executive Director for Hazard Identification & Reduction.

Interestingly, Medford has also worked with Segway-creator Dean Kamen in the past, taking time during a sabbatical to look at safety issues around the self-balancing scooter as well as the iBOT mobility system that – though now discontinued – harnessed a complex array of sensors and other autonomous features to help disabled users move around their environment.

The relative safety of self-driving cars has been something Google has been pushing strongly in the years it has been developing its project. The search giant insists that, in fact, its system is safer and more responsive than a traditional, human-piloted car; however, there are lingering concerns around whether the driverless system is sufficiently safe from malware, and though public road testing is ongoing, Google must outfit each car with not one but two human occupants in case they need to wrest control from the computers.

Medford's role at Google will be to help the company navigate as smoothly through developing regulations as it does through traffic. Simultaneously, the NHTSA will be running its own program to investigate the regulatory requirements around self-driving vehicles.