The U.S government has sided with Google in one of the most crucial arguments needed for the self-driving future of cars: An artificial intelligence system can be the legal driver of an automobile.

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. We agree with Google its (self-driving car) will not have a ‘driver’ in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years.
Ars Technica

Background

Most self-driving cars being tested currently are autonomous with the caveat that there must be a licenced human being in the car to take over in case of emergency, failure, etc. Google has had a different vision of the future. In Google’s prototype there are no pedals, steering wheel or other traditional controls. There would be no requirement for a human who could take over.

Why It Matters

I have long argued that this is an essential distinction for autonomous cars to reach their society-changing potential. There are many people who, for one reason or another, are not capable of driving a car yet need to get from place to place safely and efficiently. Just to outline a few, someone who is:

  • Blind
  • Disabled (physically or mentally)
  • Drunk or under the influence of any substance that would impair the ability to drive

Beyond the scope of human issues, there is the very real need for cars to be able to get from place-to-place without anyone inside of them. An automated car should be able to pick you up when you need a ride, bring itself in for maintenance, etc. Requiring a licenced driver to be on-board would hold back a revolution. The way we think about cars is about to change drastically and this is a positive step in that direction.