A slew of breathless stories have been published over the past couple days saying that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA*) has declared that “Google’s driverless cars are now legally the same as a human driver,” or that “A.I. in Autonomous Cars Can Legally Count as the Driver.” These stories typically go on to say that NHTSA’s decision marks “a major step toward ultimately winning approval for autonomous vehicles on the roads” or something along those lines. CNN went even further, saying that NHTSA “gave its OK to the idea of a self-driving car without a steering wheel and so forth, that cannot be controlled by a human driver.”
Unfortunately, these news stories badly misstate–or at the very least overstate–what NHTSA has actually said. First, the letter written by NHTSA’s chief counsel that served as the main source for these news stories does not say that an AI system can be a “driver” under the NHTSA rule that defines that term. It merely assumes that an AI system can be a legal driver for purposes of interpreting whether Google’s self-driving car would comply with several NHTSA rules and regulations governing the features and components of motor vehicles. In the legal world, that assumption is very, very different from a ruling that the Google car’s AI system actually qualifies as a legal driver.
NHTSA indicated that it would initiate its formal rulemaking process to consider whether it should update the definition of “driver” in light of the “changing circumstances” presented by self-driving cars. But federal agency rulemaking is a long and complicated process, and the letter makes clear that dozens of rule changes would have to be made before a car like Google’s could comply with NHTSA standards. Far from marking a significant step toward filling our roads with robocars, the letter underscores just how many legal and regulatory hurdles will have to be cleared before autonomous vehicles can freely operate on American roads.
The NHTSA letter does not say that AIs are legal drivers
The basis for the recent barrage of news stories is a letter that NHTSA’s Chief Counsel sent to the head of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project in response to a long series of questions regarding whether the Google car would, as designed, comply with NHTSA regulations that refer in some way to the “driver” or “operator” of a motor vehicle. NHTSA is the federal agency tasked with creating and enforcing design and manufacturing standards for cars, most notably with respect to safety features. Unsurprisingly, most of the current standards–most of which have been around for decades–operate under the assumption that a human driver located in the front-left seat of the vehicle will be steering the car, applying the brakes, turning on the headlights, and so forth. Many NHTSA vehicle standards therefore require that the vehicle’s major control mechanisms be physically accessible from the front-left seat.