In a landmark ruling, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently determined that Google’s Self-Driving Car Artificial Intelligence is now considered to be the “driver” of some of the first autonomous vehicles on the roads, The Guardian shares.
The official interpretation of the definition of a “driver” came in the form of a letter from the NHTSA in response to an inquiry made by Google as part of the Self-Driving Vehicle project and contains quite a few interesting nuggets, starting with an admission that the current standards are no longer sufficient:
“As self-driving technology moves beyond what was envisioned at the time when standards were issued, NHTSA may not be able to use the same kinds of test procedures for determining compliance.”
To arrive at the final interpretation, Google was pushing to understand how the current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) that govern the nuances of driving to ensure safety would be applied to Self-Driving Vehicles (SDVs). Google proposed the following:
1) NHTSA could interpret the term “driver” as meaningless for purposes of Google’s SDV, since there is no human driver, and consider FMVSS provisions that refer to a driver as simply inapplicable to Google’s vehicle design;
2) NHTSA could interpret “driver” and “operator” as referring to the SDS; or
3) NHTSA could interpret “driver’s position” or “driver’s designated seating position” as referring to the left front outboard seating position, regardless of whether the occupant of that position is able to control the vehicle’s operation or movements.
These definitions are especially relevant for Google, as it has taken an approach to self-driving vehicles that removes the typical user inputs that allow an occupant to drive the vehicle. You heard right — Google’s SDVs do not have steering wheels, brakes, or accelerators, leaving all of that to the car. This type of hard cutover to future tech makes sense, but does not allow for any transition period to autonomous driving, instead embracing the technology and optimistically leaning into the future.
Before you run off looking for a Google Car dealer or car service near you, it is important to realize that there is a key sticking point in the document — this definition is contingent upon achieving “Level 4” autonomous driving capability. The NHTSA defines that as (link to source PDF):
“Level 4 – Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4): The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles. By design, safe operation rests solely on the automated vehicle system.”
Ironically, this definition conflicts with the updated interpretation of “driver,” stating that the driver will provide the destination. 🙂 An additional caveat in the interpretation was that the NHTSA would evaluate the software to ensure that it was sufficient to provide safety to the occupants, to other drivers and to the public. Considering how long it took for regulators to find the software-enabled emissions cheats that Volkswagen was just exposed for, this offers little comfort, especially when the SDVs are being programmed by the best and the brightest programmers in the world over at Google.
The interpretation also addresses and/or touches on many of the subtler points related to autonomous driving:
- Does the car need rear-view mirrors if the “driver” has no eyes? Interpretation: no need for rear-view mirrors as long as the SDV has “visibility” behind the vehicle equivalent or greater than a rear-view mirror would have provided to a human driver.
- Does the car need standard indicators, lights, and other “telltales” that are visible to the “driver?” Interpretation: because the driver is not human, there is no need for all of the visible indicators that are required in non-autonomous vehicles. Presumably, there might even be a few new standard indicators or signals added to tell the passenger(s) how the “driver” is doing, like “rebooting,” “stopping to recharge,” “please clean front sensor #1,” etc in the future.
- Does the brake pedal have to be depressed (as a safety interlock) prior to allowing the vehicle to switch into drive mode because, y’know, Google SDVs won’t have a brake pedal? Interpretation: no need for this interlock, as it can all be handled through logic.
- Current regulation dictates that Electronic Stability Control performance be measured based on steering wheel position — how will performance of electronic stability control be measured in vehicles without a steering wheel? Interpretation: the NHTSA agrees that it will not be possible to measure performance based on the steering wheel position if there is no steering wheel but a suitable alternative will have to be identified. This is an encouraging interpretation, as it shows that the NHTSA is open minded in adapting to new tech, leaving room for the new technology to grow, evolve, and integrate into the current regulations.
This ruling is especially interesting, as it shifts the burden of liability from the vehicle owner or perhaps the occupant being carted around in a fleet vehicle… to the vehicle manufacturer. A 2014 study on the impacts of autonomous driving by Rand Corp cited (on page 111) a study by Gary Marchant and Rachel Lindor, The Coming Collision Between Autonomous Vehicles and the Liability System (2012, p. 1334), which outlined one such scenario:
“The technology is potentially doomed if there are a significant number of . . . cases, because the liability burden on the manufacturer may be prohibitive of further development. Thus, even though an autonomous vehicle may be safer overall than a conventional vehicle, it will shift the responsibility for accidents, and hence liability, from drivers to manufacturers. The shift will push the manufacturer away from the socially optimal outcome—to develop the autonomous vehicle.”
It is obvious that we are at, or fast approaching, an intersection where human drivers relinquish control of personal transportation into the hands of not a centralized human driver or conductor but, for the first time in automotive history, to artificial intelligence. These recent interpretations not only open up restrictions on manufacturers, but really open up current regulations to allow manufacturers to start playing with autonomous driving technology in the real world.
Let’s all just hope that these manufacturers put enough miles into their tech to ensure there aren’t any failures out in the real world, as it’s anyone’s guess how one accident (or even worse — a fatality) caused by autonomous driving technology would impact the progress that has been made so far.
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