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Google’s Self-Driving Cars Are Now Legal Drivers According to the US Government

Google's new self-driving prototype car during a demonstration at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif.

Google's new self-driving prototype car during a demonstration at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. // Tony Avelar/AP File Photo

One of the biggest days in any U.S. high schooler’s life is when they get their driving license. And now, Google’s self-driving cars have been granted that same level of freedom. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said that Google’s self-driving cars will now be considered legal drivers in the eyes of the law, Reuters reported.

While some states had allowed Google and others to test out self-driving cars on their roads, only humans had been considered able to drive a car at a federal level. But Chris Urmson, one of the leaders of Google’s self-driving car project, sent the NHTSA a letter in November asking the administration to reconsider how it views computer-driven cars. The NHTSA responded Feb. 4, saying that it will now consider Google’s cars as legal drivers. Although, as Re/Code points out, the NHTSA’s decision is not itself a law, but rather a clarification on how existing laws will be interpreted in the future.

In the NHTSA’s letter, it compares Google’s cars with the increasing automatization of cars in recent decades, with features such as electronic stability control, air bags, automatic emergency braking, and lane departure warnings.

“We agree with Google its SDV [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,” the administration said. “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.”

Last month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx unveiled a six-month initiative to develop a national policy for self-driving cars at the Detroit Auto Show. He also announced that, as part of President Obama’s last budget, $3.9 billion would be spent over the next decade to foster innovation and integration of self-driving cars onto U.S. roads. At the same event, the NHTSA said it would work with automakers to update its autonomous vehicle policies, and with today’s news, it seems the administration is swiftly acting on its claim.

Urmson has said in the past how he wants his children’s generation to not have to get a driver’s license, and Google appears to have grand plans for self-driving cars. The Alphabet subsidiary is now testing out its cars in three U.S. cities, and has racked up over 1 million miles of driving experience. The company has been rumored to be working on a robot taxi service, and yesterday won a patent for what appears to be a self-driving delivery truck system.

While the NHTSA’s letter helps clear the path for Google’s cars to be used on roads across the U.S., further work is still needed from both the government—to set up the actual rules for operating self-driving cars—and Google—to ensure its cars always act as intended.

“The next question is whether and how Google could certify that the [self-driving system] meets a standard developed and designed to apply to a vehicle with a human driver,” the administration said it its letter.

Google wasn’t immediately available for comment on the letter, but told Reuters that it is “still evaluating” the agency’s response.

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