National Highway Traffic Safety Administration expands the definition of "driver" for Google cars

The Administration is expanding the definition of who, or what, can be a vehicle's driver, removing more barriers on the way to developing autonomous vehicles.

Tony Avelar/AP/File
The NHTSA ruled this week that a car's driver can be a computer. The Google self-driving car, pictured here on May 13, 2015, originally had no steering wheel or other controls that would allow a human to assume control.

In a letter posted on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website last week, NHTSA told Google it can test autonomous cars without drivers, steering wheels, brake pedals, or throttle pedals.

The move fits with the promise the Department of Transportation made in January to remove obstacles to the development of autonomous vehicles.

NHTSA's letter states, "We agree with Google its SDV [self-driving vehicles] will not have a driver in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years." In other words, the artificial intelligence can drive the car. NHTSA reasons that, since the AI is driving the car, a human in the vehicle would not fit the definition of a driver.

The letter also allows Google to outfit its autonomous cars such that the AI receives rearview information instead of a human driver. That means, as long as there are sensors that detect what is happening behind the car, rearview and side mirrors aren't needed.

In addition, NHTSA agrees that a foot isn't required on the brake pedal in Google's self-driving cars when shifting out of Park. Since there is no human foot and no brake pedal, such a provision is unnecessary.

As the government did in January, NHTSA also states that other similar issues can be resolved through rules interpretations and exemption petitions.

This letter is further evidence that the federal government intends to support the development of autonomous cars in the interest of safety. Similar rulings are sure to follow.

This article first appeared at MotorAuthority.

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