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Inside Google's Plan to Make Driverless Cars Legal

By Daniel B. Kline - Mar 30, 2016 at 7:48PM

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With the technology advancing fast, the biggest roadblock keeping self-driving cars out of the marketplace may soon be government regulations. So Google is asking Washington to get rolling on crafting new ones.

Alphabet's (GOOG 2.75%) (GOOGL 2.77%) Google has moved closer to making something which once seemed if not impossible, at least improbable -- driverless cars -- a reality on our nation's roads.

In fact, it no longer seems like the technology is what's standing in the way of vehicles being piloted by artificial intelligence. Google seems to have mostly worked out those issues while conducting extensive testing. Instead, regulatory hurdles appear to be the company's biggest challenge.

Before Alphabet can begin offering self-driving technology to the general public, the United States government needs to make a lot of changes. Currently, it's actually illegal to sell a car whose steering and control systems don't allow for human intervention. In theory, that still allows for some varieties of self-driving cars, but not the type Google envisions, which would not have a steering wheel, brake pedal, nor any other way for the passengers to take over.

Google's self-driving car has been tested extensively. Source: Google

To make its once-science-fiction-sounding plan a reality, the search giant first needs the government to clear the road, which is what it has asked Washington to do in a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the Associated Press reported.

What does Google want?
Essentially, the technology giant wants to jump start a regulatory process that can often take years. The letter pushes for Congress to amend a number of laws, among them the specific one that bans cars that can drive themselves without human intervention. The move suggests the company, which has been testing its self-driving cars for years, may be closer to a releasable product than many previously believed.

In the letter to Foxx, Chris Ursmon, who heads Google's self-driving car project, asked for a federal fast-track for legalizing the technology, which he has already presented in a general way to the Senate Commerce Committee. Under the company's proposal, any manufacturer that could show its vehicles pass federal safety tests would be given permission to sell them, according to AP. Those rules would apply not just to Google's car, but to ones from automakers, or any other company that seeks to enter the space.

The government, of course, would still be able to set conditions limiting use based on safety concerns, but it would be obligated to review company's applications in a "tight but realistic" time frame, the news service reported.

Changing the rules in this fashion would bring "enormous potential safety benefits ... quite promptly with appropriate safety conditions and full public input," according to a summary of the proposal obtained by The AP.

It's not just about cars
Google is patient, but its aggressive efforts to get self-driving cars approved for general use actually highlight a bigger problem. Existing laws can't always be applied to emerging technologies. We've seen Amazon (AMZN 1.69%) deal with similar issues as it struggles to create a path for legal consideration of its delivery drone technology. In that case, as with self-driving cars, it's not a simple case of yes or no, nor even of adapting existing law -- a whole new framework needs to be created.

Amazon has shown that in these cases, being aggressive helps. Autonomous delivery drones, like driverless cars, have gone from a fanciful notion to a pending reality because of the online retailer's efforts. In that case, as in this one, the company taking the lead (be it Google or Amazon) is actually paving the way for its competition as well.

How close are we?
It's probably fair to say that self-driving cars have moved closer, but they are not close. Even Google spokesman Johnny Luu acknowledged to the AP that the company's proposal was "the beginning of a process." 

Google is asking the federal government to craft a framework under which the safety of these systems can be evaluated. That's a sensible request, because it's impossible to meet a standard that doesn't exist. A lot of work remains ahead before the technology is ready for the marketplace, but at this point, Google and the other companies attempting to create these vehicles need to start removing some of the outright barriers from the road ahead of them.

So it's right for the company to ask, and the government should answer -- even if it's standards are especially rigorous. Once Google knows how high the bar is set, it can either jump over it or fail trying, but it certainly deserves a fair chance to try.

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