Google’s Self-Driving Car May Soon Be Considered a Legal Driver

Before too long, a computer might be able to acquire its own driver’s license.

In November, Google submitted a design to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for a self-driving car that would not require a human driver. In other words, the person inside the vehicle wouldn’t need to know any basic road rules in order to get around.

In a public letter to Google, the NHTSA concluded that the legal definition of “driver” could be changed to accommodate the new technology. The letter stated: “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.”

self-driving-car_2048x1152
Autonomous vehicles could fundamentally shift the structure of urban life.

The recommendation suggests that the U.S. government might allow Google to build marketable self-driving cars that don’t include steering wheels, pedals, or any other human-operated feature.

That may not be a bad thing. Here’s Sebastian Anthony, writing for ArsTechnica:

Currently, while Google’s self-driving car prototypes can operate fully autonomously, they are required to have a human driver inside. They must also have the various accoutrements—a steering wheel and pedals—that would allow the human driver to take over if required. This sounds sensible at first blush, but the NHTSA letter said that Google expressed concern “that providing human occupants of the vehicle with mechanisms to control things like steering, acceleration, braking… could be detrimental to safety because the human occupants could attempt to override the (self-driving system’s) decisions.”

In January, the Department of Transportation announced a $4 billion plan to get self-driving vehicles onto U.S. roads. This isn’t just an uber-techie pipe dream. Autonomous vehicles could change our cities in very real, irreversible ways; as NOVA Next contributor Phil McKenna reported last month, “self-driving vehicles could indeed remove nine out of every ten vehicles on city streets, eliminating the need for all on-street parking and 80% of off-street parking, according to a recent study.” And if autonomous cars are considered drivers in their own right, the future may not be far down the road.