We are now witnessing the U.S. vehicle safety regulators recognizing the artificial intelligence system piloting a car as "the driver" under federal law.
When IBM’s chess-playing Deep Blue first defeated Garry Kasparov, exactly 20 years ago (Feb. 10, 1996), it sent a shockwave around the world, alerting people palpably to the breathtaking advancement of artificial intelligence (AI).
Yes, but that was a computer beating a human at chess game, sitting still, in a room.
Twenty years later, we bear witness to U.S. vehicle safety regulators who have recognized the AI system piloting a car as “the driver,” under federal law.
Robotic cars [without a human driver’s assistance] have been deemed equal to human drivers. This decision paves the way to a future in which driverless robo-vehicles roam freely along the city streets and share public roads with old-fangled human drivers.
Do I sound a bit paranoid? Perhaps. But there is no doubt in my mind that this little bureaucratic burp clears a major obstacle for tomorrow’s self-driving cars.
Last November, in a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Google's self-driving car unit submitted a proposed design for a self-driving car that has "no need for a human driver.” Google was asking for interpretations to determine how it would certify its self-driving vehicle to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).
NHTSA responded to Google in a letter dated February 4, 2016, saying 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.”
The NHTSA’s letter further said, “We agree with Google its self-driving vehicles will not have a driver in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years.”
Clearly, the agency recognizes that the horses are out of the barn. There’s no way to stop the trend toward automated vehicles.
The NHTSA’s letter mentioned such features as “antilock brakes, electronic stability control, and air bags, automatic emergency braking, forward crash warning, and lane departure warnings,” and said the trend is “continuing on toward vehicles with Google’s self-driving vehicles and potentially beyond.”
Given a Google vehicle design in which no human occupant is allowed to take over driving, NHTSA concluded:
If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the driver as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving. In this instance, an item of motor vehicle equipment, the SDS (self-driving system), is actually driving the vehicle.
In this rather lengthy response by NHTSA to Google, two things jump out. First, Google firmly believes that self-driving cars should preclude any occupant in a vehicle from assuming the driving task. Second, NHTSA’s qualifying the self-driving system as the driver actually opens a can of worms in terms of how to test the vehicle’s safety.
Let’s start with the first item.