Regulators Conclude Computers Can Be “Drivers”

Google Car

In response to an inquiry from Google, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will allow a vehicle’s artificial-intelligence computer to qualify as a “driver” for purposes of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

The backdrop on NHTSA’s new finding is the agency’s 2013 “Preliminary Statement of Policy” on automated vehicles (Policy Statement / Policy Summary), which recognized new vehicle technology and defined five levels of vehicle automation:

  • No-Automation (Level 0): The driver is in complete and sole control of the primary vehicle controls – brake, steering, throttle, and motive power – at all times.
  • Function-specific Automation (Level 1): Automation at this level involves one or more specific control functions. Examples include electronic stability control or pre-charged brakes, where the vehicle automatically assists with braking to enable the driver to regain control of the vehicle or stop faster than possible by acting alone.
  • Combined Function Automation (Level 2): This level involves automation of at least two primary control functions designed to work in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions. An example of combined functions enabling a Level 2 system is adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering.
  • Limited Self-Driving Automation (Level 3): Vehicles at this level of automation enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time. The Google car is an example of limited self-driving automation.
  • 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.

Google made its inquiry because it seeks to produce a Level 4 vehicle without conventional driver controls and interfaces (like a steering wheel, throttle pedal, and brake pedal, among many other things). Google’s position is that its artificial intelligence-based “Self-Driving System” (SDS) obviates the need for a human driver, and NHTSA generally agrees with this conclusion.

The next steps are determining how Google will certify that the SDS meets a standard developed and designed to apply to a vehicle with a human driver, and how such certification will be verified for compliance. Recognizing that until such a process is developed the plain language of certain regulations (such as that brakes be able to be activated by foot) cannot be ignored, NHTSA suggests that Google petition for exemptions to such provisions.

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