Computer as driver? ‘Yes’ from feds boosts self-driving cars

FILE - This May 13, 2015, file photo, shows Google's new self-driving car during a demonstration at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. The federal government's highway safety agency agrees with Google: Computers that will control the cars of the future can be considered their driver. The redefinition of "driver" is an important break for Google. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)

The redefinition of “driver” by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is an important break for Google, as the tech giant is developing self-driving cars that get around without steering wheels, pedals — or even the need for a person to be inside.

While the safety agency agreed with Google’s “driver” reinterpretation in a recent letter, it didn’t allow other concessions and said numerous federal rules would have to be changed to permit the cars.

In written requests over the past three months, Google asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to interpret federal code in ways that would ease the path to market for its cars.

The agency agreed that the car can be a driver but, in a Feb. 4 response posted on its website, also rejected the company’s claim that the cars comply with many related regulations including requirements for foot or hand brakes.

The proposed redefinition may aid Google and other autonomous vehicle makers, as companies encountered what some called a setback from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

The DMV released draft regulations for driverless cars in December last year, mandating a licensed driver be “capable of taking over immediate control in the event of an autonomous technology failure or other emergency” in a driverless car.

The licensed driver would also be on the hook for traffic tickets, according to the draft regulations.

Many said in news reports at the time that requiring a person in the driver’s seat may conflict with the ideal of a “driverless car.”

But the DMV wrote in its draft regulations, “Given the potential risks associated with deployment of such a new technology, DMV believes that manufacturers need to obtain more experience in testing driverless vehicles on public roads prior to making this technology available to the general public.”

Google and others are testing autonomous vehicles in San Francisco and throughout California.

Timothy Papandreou heads the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s recently christened Office of Innovation. He confirmed some of the 11 companies with autonomous vehicles are testing in San Francisco right now.

Google’s small test car hasn’t come into San Francisco yet, he said, but a Lexus autonomous car has rolled The City’s streets.

The Office of Innovation is future forward, forming a potential framework of regulations for autonomous vehicles in San Francisco.

“That’s one of my charges,” Papandreou said.

Policy and partnership are the goals, he said. The first questions revolve around safety, and whether or not the autonomous vehicles improve the transportation system and are “a good citizen,” he said.

If the vehicles are shared, he said, The City might see private vehicles dwindle in a way that may allow unneeded parking structures to one day — far in the future — become repurposed, for housing for instance.

But, he added, “It’s years away man, relax.”

The federal government isn’t predicting when autonomous cars will be on public roads in big numbers, but some automakers have said they could be in use in limited areas by 2020 — and Google has been more bullish than that.

S.F. Examiner Staff Writer Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report.Driverless carsGoogleNational Highway Traffic Safety AdministrationTransit

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