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Google Gets One Step Closer to Making Driverless Cars Happen

By Daniel B. Kline - Feb 21, 2016 at 6:43AM

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A federal agency has given guidance that offers clarity, and begins to create a path toward legality.

Creating a self-driving car that gets people where they intend to go safely only represents half the problem facing Alphabet's (GOOG -0.27%) (GOOGL -0.21%) Google. The company also has to get federal regulators to create rules that govern the use of such vehicles.

That might be an even bigger problem than the technology because federal agencies move notoriously slowly, often responding to new innovation after the fact. That might be fine if we're talking about a new technique for delivering Wi-Fi, or a different type of smartwatch, but it's less practical when it comes to cars.

Because of this, Google has been very aggressive in asking for rulings as it tests its driverless vehicles. The company is not alone in doing so, but its efforts will pave the way for any other companies that enter the space. That includes Apple (AAPL 1.62%), which refuses to confirm its intentions in the auto industry, or other players like Uber, which would certainly benefit from not having to pay drivers.

Google, or parent company Alphabet, depending how you look at it, has taken up the vanguard position and asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for a number of interpretations in a Nov. 12 letter. The agency's Feb. 4 response, which Reuters reports on here, gave the company -- and by extension Apple, Uber, and anyone else considering creating or using this technology -- a big win.

Google is currently testing cars that do not need drivers. Image source: Google.

What did the NHTSA say?
The most important question in Google's letter, from a potential manufacturer's point, involved who, or what, would be considered the driver of a driverless car. If, for example, the NHTSA considered the passenger the driver, it would create legal liability for people that might cause them to avoid the technology. But the NHTSA did not see it that way, and wrote that the artificial intelligence would, in fact, be considered the entity in charge.

"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," Reuters reported the 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."

Why does this matter?
The topic is a question of liability. If a consumer gets into an elevator, presses the button for floor 11, and the car rockets up through the building, bursts through the roof, and kills a dozen people when it lands, it's not the guy who pushed the button who bears legal responsibility. In the case of driverless cars, Google is betting that the companies making the vehicles should shoulder that responsibility.

That seems oddly magnanimous for the company, as few businesses ever fight to assume liability, but it actually makes sense when you consider that the company considers human drivers taking control of the car one of the biggest problems facing self-driving cars.

Google "expresses 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," the NHTSA letter stated. The agency did not make a ruling on whether driverless car makers would be able to omit things like steering wheels, brakes, and other controls that are currently mandated in all vehicles.

The NHTSA also acknowledged that the process of rewriting rules could take years, though it did pledge to deliver guidelines for self-driving cars within six months. Those will only be a framework, and won't answer every question Google has, but the agency welcomed the company to apply for exceptions as long as it could provide documentation backing them up. The NHTSA also did not indicate it was ready to sign off on Google's system. Reuters noted the NHTSA said it remains undetermined how Google could certify its self-driving system meets a standard developed to apply to a vehicle with a human driver.

Why is Apple staying quiet?
The odd part of this whole ongoing debate is that Google is essentially fighting it alone. You can argue that Uber and other ride-share companies have their legislative hands full just keeping their core businesses legal, but Apple's silence is notable. Even though the company has hired a number of engineers and executives from the auto industry, it has said nothing as to whether it actually plans to enter the space.

That's partially because Apple has always been a company that keeps things close to the vest, but there may be another reason why the iPhone maker has stayed out of the political fight. Put simply, people may not want to have cars that no longer need drivers.

"It's a lot like the gun debate," Arthur Wheaton, a director at The Worker Institute at Cornell University, told The Atlantic. "'You'll pry my steering wheel from my cold dead hands.' A lot of people will not give up the freedom to drive their own car."

Driverless cars are getting closer
While Apple remains, as far as it's said, on the sidelines, Google has been very public about its goals, and its efforts are starting to pay off. This NHTSA ruling does not entirely clear the way for driver-free vehicles, but it begins to clear the path for them.

It's beginning to be clear that this technology is going to happen. It's really only a question of when and to what extent.

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