Google gets a win on self-driving cars


The system that controls Google’s self-driving cars can legally be considered a driver, according to a federal agency.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wrote to Google this month to tell the tech giant that the agency “will interpret 'driver' in the context of Google’s described motor vehicle design as referring to the [self-driving system], and not to any of the vehicle occupants.”

“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 agency said that it will have to tackle “whether and how Google could certify that the [self-driving car] meets a standard developed and designed to apply to a vehicle with a human driver.”

The letter, first reported by Reuters on Wednesday, is a boost to Google, which has long said that its cars should not require a licensed human driver behind the wheel. A Google spokesperson said in a statement that the company is "considering the letter in full."

The company's position has been put to the test in California, where a battle is raging over draft regulations from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles that would require a licensed driver behind the wheel of every self-driving car. Technology companies and groups claim this would severely limit the potential of the technology.

“This maintains the same old status quo and falls short on allowing this technology to reach its full potential, while excluding those who need to get around but cannot drive,” Chris Urmson, who leads the project for Google, said in December. “While we’re disappointed by this, we will continue to work with the DMV as they seek feedback in the coming months, in the hope that we can recapture the original spirit of the bill.”

Autonomous vehicles have attracted significant attention from technology giants, like Google and Uber, as well as traditional automakers.

The Obama administration has been supportive of the self-driving car boom. The Department of Transportation is expected to produce a template for state policymakers working on the issue, and the administration is pushing for funding for pilot programs on the technology.

--This report was updated at 11:51 a.m.