NHTSA Classifies Google AI As A ‘Driver’ In New Regulations, Boosts Self-Driving Street Cred

Score a victory for Google and all the work it's put into its self-driving vehicle initiative. Why? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration informed Google that the artificial intelligence (AI) system controlling its fleet of autonomous vehicles qualifies as a "driver" under federal law, which is no small thing.

To understand the significance of this, we have to go back to December of last year when California's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) drafted a set of rules and restrictions for self-driving cars. Among the restrictions was that a licensed driver would have to be behind the wheel at all times. Google said it was "gravely disappointed" with California's proposed mandates, in particular because requiring a driver would eliminate the possibility of someone with special needs, such as a blind person, from using a self-driving car.

Google Self Driving Car

Having the NHTSA rule that Google's AI system could be considered a driver under federal law is a major development, one that potentially lifts the so-called ceiling on autonomous technology that Google felt California had imposed.

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

This effectively removes one potential roadblock from Google's effort to streamline testing of its autonomous vehicles, though there are still things to figure out.

"The next question is whether and how Google could certify that the [self-driving system] meets a standard developed and designed to apply to a vehicle with a human driver," the NHTSA added.

Google is still in the process of digesting everything the NHTSA had to say. While there are still obstacles to overcome and questions that need answered, this is a positive step for Google in its effort to commercialize self-driving vehicles.