In what may be seen as one of the first steps in getting self-driving cars out of the test labs and onto the streets of our cities, Google has convinced at least part of the US government that its computer algorithms are the actual ‘drivers’ in its cars.
While this may seem like common sense, seeing as its latest cars have no steering wheels or pedals, it’s nonetheless a very important step towards making these vehicles a regular sight on our streets. The legal labyrinth that companies like Google, Tesla and others will have to go through before self-driving cars are actually allowed on normal roads in any significant number is a huge one. But this step, altering the very definition of the “driver” - which until now was obviously always a person - is perhaps one of the most important ones.
The decision to alter this definition came from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, and was expressed in a letter sent to Google and its now-parent company Alphabet. In it, the NHTSA answers Google’s comments regarding the requirement that cars have a designated seat for the driver, not to mention brake pedals, steering wheels and all the other staples of a normal human-driven vehicle.
The NHTSA concedes that these requirements make little sense in a world where the human inside the car is literally doing nothing and the computer algorithm is the one that’s actually driving the car. The NHTSA also concedes that existing rules will need to be changed or skirted by companies looking to bring self-driving cars to the masses. It’s also an important first step in moving towards formulating a new framework for assessing insurance risk and blame in case of accidents, a huge and complicated legal issue once humans are taken out of the equation.
There’s little reason to think that this decision will have any effect in the short term, but looking at the big picture this may be another important milestone in modernizing the United States’ and other countries laws - an essential process if we’re to ever have smart cars that drive us around by themselves.
This will also likely be the first of many such steps in recognizing that things are changing, legally speaking. The US government seem very interested in making self-driving cars a reality, with the recent budget having set aside $4 billion for their development over the next ten years, so we’re bound to see further changes in the legal system over the years to come.