Feds declare that Google's self-driving car is its own driver
Chris Urmson, Google's director of its self-driving car project, apparently queried the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA) for clarification on how Google's proposed self-driving cars could meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), the rules that automakers must abide by when designing cars for the US market.
NHTSA posted a detailed response on its Web site. The response shows that Google was concerned how the FMVSS could be applied to a computer-controlled car lacking a steering wheel or any other traditional driver controls. Urmson suggested that NHTSA could interpret the FMVSS as not to apply to Google's cars at all, or that it require a traditional interpretation, assuming a driver in the left front seat, or that the system controlling the car could be considered the driver.
In NHTSA's letter, it chose the latter solution, determining that the self-driving system is the driver for purposes of the FMVSS.
Google has been developing its self-driving car systems over the last few years, beginning with a fleet of Priuses topped by lidar "chandeliers" to its current fleet of custom-designed pod cars. The current fleet is being tested on roads around Google's Mountain View, California campus, and are restricted to a top speed of 25 mph. State law allows for testing on public roads, but requires a human driver be ready to take over if the car's systems fail.
When Google first proposed its current custom-designed self-driving cars, they lacked internal driver controls. Responding to state and federal regulations at the time, Google added in human driver controls to the design.