U.S. Letter to Google: A Potential Boost for Self-Driving Cars

Neal Rasmussen, MJLST Managing Editor

As Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology Volume 16, Issue 2 authors Spencer Peck, Leili Fatehi, Frank Douma, & Adeel Lari note in their article, “The SDVs are Coming! An Examination of Minnesota Laws in Preparation for Self-Driving Vehicles,” current laws already permit certain aspects of self-driving cars, but these laws will need to be modified to allow self-driving cars to reach their full potential. While the process will be slow, this modification is starting to happen as evidenced by a recent letter sent to Google, Inc. from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

In this letter, Paul Hemmersbaugh, writing as chief counsel for the NHTSA, accepts the fact that the computers driving Google’s self-driving vehicles can be considered the same as a human driver such that the “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.” Mr. Hemmersbaugh further explains that the NHTSA “agree[s] with Google [that] its [self-driving vehicle] will not have a ‘driver’ in the traditional sense” and that the NHTSA must work to develop better rules moving forward.

This letter was in response to Google’s proposal for a self-driving vehicle without basic controls, such as a steering wheel and pedals, and ultimately no human driver. The proposal stems from Google’s belief that having features that allow humans to take control could be “detrimental to safety” because human drivers are often ill equipped to take over in emergency situations due to distractions and over reactions.

According to Karl Brauer, a senior analyst for Kelly Blue Book, if the “NHTSA is prepared to name artificial intelligence as a viable alterative to human-controlled vehicles, it could substantially streamline the process of putting autonomous vehicles on the road.” While this letter is definitely a step in the right direction, manufacturers still have a long ways to go at the state and federal levels.

In December the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) issued proposed regulations that would require a human driver to always be behind the wheel with the ability to take over controls at any time. The DMV expressed concerns that manufactures haven’t obtain enough experience with driverless vehicles on public roads and that more must be done before such technology can be readily available.

So while the letter from the NHTSA offers hope to those within the industry, there are many more barriers to be crossed before self-driving cars can become a full reality.