Google’s self-driving cars scored a major win as the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) told Google that its autonomous driving software can be considered a legal driver under federal law. In this setup, it’s possible that none of the human passengers would require a driving license.
It’s important to note that this NHTSA interpretation isn’t a law itself, it’s just a clarification on how existing laws can be interpreted in the future. It does, however, directly contrast what California state regulators were trying to do. California was essentially trying to ban Google self-driving cars by saying the cars aren’t smart enough to be sold to consumers without a steering wheel, brake pedals, and a licensed driver behind the wheel.
This is a critical first step towards Google’s goal of commercializing self-driving cars by 2020. But this NHTSA interpretation doesn’t mean self-driving cars are legal for public use. In the letter, NHTSA chief counsel Paul A. Hemmersbaugh said the next hurdle for Google is proving its self-driving cars meet a safety standard that currently applies to human drivers.
Google asked NHTSA in a November letter for interpretation of safety standards in cars it seeks to produce without traditional controls, such as a steering wheel or throttle and brake pedals.
Some states have allowed Google self-driving cars to be tested on public roads, but at the federal level only humans have been considered legal drivers. Not anymore. “We agree with Google its self-driving car will not have a ‘driver’ in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years,” said the NHTSA letter.
The US Department of Transport said in January 2016 that it would be willing to waive some regulations to get more self-driving cars onto the roads. Anthony Foxx, the transport chief, said “in 2016, we are going to do everything we can to promote safe, smart, and sustainable vehicles. We are bullish on automated vehicles.”