This is huge. Especially in light of concerns following California’s recent draft regulations mandating a driver in a self-driving car, the recognition that Google’s self-driving car (SDC) satisfies the driver requirement is a landmark decision indeed.
The issue was a practical one: how could Google’s SDC satisfy the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards’ (FMVSS) rules with respect to human inputs such as brake pedals, steering wheel placement, mirrors, and so on, if the very point of an SDC was not to have such human compromises?
Put another way, if the FMVSS requires a gas pedal and steering wheel, but Google’s SDC by definition eschews them, then how can Google’s SDC exist without running afoul of the legal requirements to include such controls?
Google’s director of self-driving cars, Chris Urmson, decided to propose to the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA) three possible solutions: (1) agree that the FMVSS requirements for human control simply don’t apply to Google SDCs; or (2) agree that Google SDCs are the driver controlling the car, and thus a steering wheel and pedals would be redundant, and indeed, unnecessary.
To the surprise of, well, everyone, the NHTSA agreed with Urmson’s second proposal: the Google SDC is indeed the driver, rendering unnecessary to the point of absurdity the mandate for redundant human controls, as I argued in my
rant post about the aforementioned California draft regulations.
As an example, where the NHTSA required brake pedals accessible by the driver, the NHTSA agreed that, since the SDC is the driver, the “brake pedals” are in fact controlled by the SDC via software, and thus the requirement is in fact satisfied.
This is a remarkably impressive, forward thinking about-face by the NHTSA, and while individual state rules will ultimately enforce Google SDCs on their roads, this is indisputably a massive victory not just for Google, but for the advancement of self-driving cars generally.
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