A car's driver doesn't necessarily have to be human: The artificial intelligence behind Google Inc.'s self-driving system could count, according to federal highway safety officials.
In a letter posted on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website, the agency responded to Google's request for interpretation of several federal safety standards as they apply to the tech giant's self-driving cars.
As a premise of the interpretation, "NHTSA 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," Chief Counsel Paul Hemmersbaugh said in the letter. "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 100 years."
Analysts said this could make it easier for the Mountain View, Calif., tech giant to roll out driverless cars and could potentially apply to other autonomous vehicle makers as well.
"It does provide a different definition of the driver," said Thilo Koslowski, vice president and automotive practice leader at research firm Gartner. "It could accelerate significantly legislation in all the different states for autonomous vehicles to be on the roads."
This is just the latest federal boost for self-driving cars. The Transportation Department said in January that federal guidelines for how such vehicles will operate, as well as a model state policy, would be developed in six months.
Not all government agencies are fully on board. In December, the California Department of Motor Vehicles released draft rules for self-driving cars, including a requirement that the vehicles have a steering wheel and a human driver ready to take control if necessary.
Google's vehicle design removes conventional controls such as steering wheels and brake pedals because the company believes that giving human occupants access to these operations could be "detrimental to safety because the human occupants could attempt to override the [self-driving system's] decisions," the NHTSA letter says.
There are still many obstacles to overcome before driverless cars could make a widespread debut on public roads. In the letter, NHTSA said Google also must certify that self-driving technology meets standards developed for cars with human drivers and that the agency itself must have some way to determine compliance.