Self-driving cars have passed another major hurdle as they move closer and closer to being deemed road legal. Regulators in the U.S. have said that the computer driving the cars will be regarded as a driver, meaning there is no legal requirement for a human to have control of the car.
The position was revealed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in a letter to Google, which has been vigorously testing its self-driving cars in recent years. It opens the door to cars driving by themselves either with no human on board or with one who is asleep or otherwise unable to drive, and could allow for driverless testing on public roads soon.
“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,” the letter said. “We agree with Google its 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.”
This helps to overcome a key stumbling block for self-driving cars, namely that they required a human occupant to be able to take control at any moment under previous laws. This was widely thought to be archaic in light of the rapidly advancing technology, and would prevent some of the most desirable features of self-driving cars from being useful, such as having your car come and pick you up or taking you somewhere while you rest.
In addition, Google’s cars do not have steering wheels and peddles, something not allowed under previous laws. Now that the artificial intelligence itself is deemed the driver, these are no longer required to be in the car. This will also help other companies develop their own autonomous technology.
One of the last major stumbling blocks is the issue of who is liable in an accident. If there is no human inside the car, and it accidentally crashes or is hit by a human driver, it will need to be decided if the owner of the vehicle is liable, or the manufacturer.
Nonetheless, self-driving cars promise to provide much safer roads in the near future. A recent report by the Institution of Management Engineers in the U.K. suggested that 95 percent of accidents could be averted with the widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles.
And that could be closer than you think, with multiple steps forward being taken in the last few months. In January, the U.S. government announced a $4 billion plan to create nationwide rules for self-driving cars, while in the same month the first self-driving cars to be tested on the streets of London were revealed.