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Feds to Google: Software Could be Considered a 'Driver' for Regulatory Purposes

While a letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to Google suggests that fully self-driving cars could pass safety inspections, it acknowledges that regulatory hurdles still remain.

In a limited sort of way, a federal agency has sent a ray of sunshine down to the automotive industry suggesting that cars that will drive without humans are OK after all.

It came in the form of a letter that te chief counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent to the head of Google’s self-driving car project on Feb. 4, but didn't surface in the news until Wednesday, Feb. 10. In the letter, NHTSA Chief Counsel Paul Hemmersbaugh told Google’s Chris Urmson that under federal safety standards, a car’s self-driving software could be considered a “driver.”

“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,” the letter reads. “In this instance, an item of motor vehicle equipment, the [self-driving system], is actually driving the vehicle.”

For now, the interpretation is just that — semantics. It doesn’t allow Google or any other company to start testing cars without steering wheels on public roads, nor does it pre-empt any policies at the state level. The letter itself even limits its scope specifically to Google’s pod-like prototype vehicles that lack steering wheels and pedals for acceleration and braking.

What it does is signal that Google and other car companies hoping to put high-level autonomous vehicles on the road will be able to pass certain federal safety standard tests without worrying.

“We are taking great care to embrace innovations that can boost safety and improve efficiency on our roadways,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement on Wednesday. “Our interpretation that the self-driving computer system of a car could, in fact, be a driver is significant. But the burden remains on self-driving car manufacturers to prove that their vehicles meet rigorous federal safety standards.”

Even then, NHTSA acknowledged that Google’s car wouldn’t be able to meet certain standards. For instance, one standard requires a vehicle to have foot- or hand-activated braking capabilities. Even if a car’s self-driving software is considered to be a “driver,” regulators would still ask for the car to have those brakes.

“Those standards were drafted at a time when it was reasonable to assume that all motor vehicles would have a steering wheel, accelerator pedal, and brake pedal, almost always located at the front left seating position, and that all vehicles would be operated by a human driver,” Hemmersbaugh wrote in the letter.

Hemmersbaugh invited Google to petition the administration for a language change to clear up those issues.

The interpretation is one more hammer swing onto the philosophical wedge separating NHTSA’s approach from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which is leading the way on state regulations of self-driving cars. The state has established rules for testing the vehicles, and its proposed rules for public operation would require a human with a driver’s license to sit behind the wheel at all times, capable of taking over.

That would rule out Google’s car, as well as any car designed to complete a trip without human monitoring. That means no cars for the blind and disabled, the elderly and the young, or even for certain package delivery concepts.

Google and other automakers have called on the California DMV to allow those vehicles in its regulations so long as they can prove that the cars are safer than human drivers. In the midst of that battle, the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA have come out saying that they intend to release model guidelines for state policy in a matter of months that will allow for fully self-driving cars. This week, President Barack Obama released a budget proposal that would put $4 billion toward connected and autonomous vehicle research.

John Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog and a constant public voice urging caution on self-driving car regulation, called NHTSA’s interpretation letter “outrageous.”

“We think [this] is a wrong-headed decision that flies completely in the face of facts that Google itself has provided,” Simpson said, referring to the numbers in Google’s “disengagement report,” which it turned over to the California DMV in January. The report, which other companies testing AVs in the state also had to hand in, described all the times that Google’s cars handed control over to human operators. Google’s 341 disengagements happened during 424,331 miles of driving for reasons ranging from a human operator’s own judgment to the onset of bad weather.

While Urmson has defended the report by pointing out that the rate of disengagement has dropped dramatically as the technology has improved, Simpson said the company is still not ready to put a fully autonomous vehicle on the road.

“Maybe they’ve gotten better, but they’re not there yet,” Simpson said. “That’s our point.”

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.