Google’s driverless car push gets a boost

Google's self-driving car project has received a boost after a key U.S. regulator said the computer controlling the vehicle should be legally defined as a "driver" rather than the human.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration laid out its thoughts about the definition of a driver in a letter to Alphabet-owned Google this week.

"NHTSA will interpret 'driver' in the context of Google's described motor vehicle design as referring to the SDS (self-driving system), and not to any of the vehicle occupants," the agency said. "We agree with Google its SDV (self-driving vehicle) will not have a 'driver' in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years."

"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. In this instance, an item of motor vehicle equipment, the SDS, is actually driving the vehicle."

The ruling is significant for Google because it makes as its self-driving vehicles, which have no steering wheel, one step closer to being roadworthy on a mass scale. NHTSA's ruling now means the car could pass the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards test.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, right, and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt get out of a Google self-driving car at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., February 2, 2015.
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Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, right, and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt get out of a Google self-driving car at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., February 2, 2015.

It's a moment of good fortune for Google after it had a run-in with Californian authorities in December. The California Department of Motor Vehicles said a physical driver must be inside the vehicle and capable of taking control in the event of a technological failure, something that would have been difficult in Google's pod-like cars without a steering wheel.

The technology giant has also been backed by the federal Transportation Department. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx last month announced a 10 year, $4 billion plan to accelerate the progress of autonomous vehicles.

The news will also be a boost to other carmakers wanting to make self-driving cars a reality. Last month, Tesla boss Elon Musk said that within two years, people would be able to call their vehicle to drive itself from your home to meet you — and recharge itself along the way. The NHTSA ruling could help his cause.

NHTSA said that it would "consider initiating rulemaking" to address whether the definition of "driver" in the law might need updating, but it recognized that it can take "substantial periods of time" for this to pass. In the meantime, NHTSA said that Google could seek exemptions from certain regulations to test its vehicles.

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