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US government will treat Google cars like human drivers

Google has reached a legal breakthrough for its driverless car. (Photo: Google)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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Transportation officials consider self-driving system “a driver” under federal law.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has taken a historic step towards fully legalizing autonomous vehicles. The artificial intelligence piloting the Google car can qualify as the vehicle’s driver, the US government agency has stated.

According to The Washington Post, the authority explains the decision in a letter sent to Google this month. "We agree with Google its [self-driving vehicle] will not have a 'driver' in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years," the letter said. "If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the "driver" as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving." The NHTSA has now published the letter on its website.

The reform of the agency’s policy represents a major victory for Google. The company’s self-driving pods famously do not feature steering wheels, brake pedals or rearview mirrors – which is at odds with existing regulation. This has led to disputes with Californian officials who insisted that any vehicle requires those safety features and a human driver.

The letter to Google comes amid efforts of the Obama administration to boost the development of driverless cars. The implications of the NHTSA’s response are far-ranging. It could ultimately allow vehicles to drive autonomously without a human even being present in the car. But the agency’s decision does not categorically give Google the benefit of the doubt, the Washington Post notes. Until the agency writes new rules for driverless cars, Google might have to ask for exemptions.

Read the full Washington Post article here.

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