U.S. vehicle safety regulators have said the artificial intelligence system piloting a self-driving Google car could be considered the driver under federal law, a major step toward ultimately winning approval for autonomous vehicles on the roads.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc, of its decision in a previously unreported Feb. 4 letter to the company posted on the agency's website this week.
Google's self-driving car unit on Nov. 12 submitted a proposed design for a self-driving car that has 'no need for a human driver,' the letter to Google from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Chief Counsel Paul Hemmersbaugh said.
'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,' NHTSA's letter said.
'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.'
Major automakers and technology companies such as Google are racing to develop and sell vehicles that can drive themselves at least part of the time.
All participants in the autonomous driving race complain that state and federal safety rules are impeding testing and eventual deployment of such vehicles.
California has proposed draft rules requiring steering wheels and a licensed driver in all self-driving cars.
Karl Brauer, senior analyst for the Kelley Blue Book automotive research firm, said there were still significant legal questions surrounding autonomous vehicles.
But if 'NHTSA is prepared to name artificial intelligence as a viable alternative to human-controlled vehicles, it could substantially streamline the process of putting autonomous vehicles on the road,' he said.
If the car's computer is the driver for legal purposes, then it clears the way for Google or automakers to design vehicle systems that communicate directly with the vehicle's artificial pilot.
In its response to Google, the federal agency offered its most comprehensive map yet of the legal obstacles to putting fully autonomous vehicles on the road.
It noted existing regulations requiring some auto safety equipment can not be waived immediately, including requirements for braking systems activated by foot control.
'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,' NHTSA said.
Google is 'still evaluating' NHTSA's lengthy response, a company spokesperson said on Tuesday.
Google executives have said they would likely partner with established automakers to build self-driving cars.
Google told NHTSA that the real danger is having auto safety features that could tempt humans to try to take control.
Google 'expresses concern that providing human occupants of the vehicle with mechanisms to control things like steering, acceleration, braking... could be detrimental to safety because the human occupants could attempt to override the (self-driving system's) decisions,' the letter stated.
In the past two years, 23 states have introduced legislation that affect self-driving cars, 'all of which include different approaches and concepts,' he noted.
Five states have passed such legislation, all with different rules, Urmson said.
'If every state is left to go its own way without a unified approach, operating self-driving cars across state boundaries would be an unworkable situation and one that will significantly hinder safety, innovation, interstate commerce, national competitiveness and the eventual deployment of autonomous vehicles,' Urmson said in his prepared testimony.
He also cited government statistics showing 38,000 people were killed last year in US road accidents and that '94 percent of those accidents involve human error.'
Joseph Okpaku, vice president of government relations for the ridesharing group Lyft, echoed those comments, saying consistent rules would be important for the planned deployment of self-driving cars by Lyft and GM.
'We are on the doorstep of another evolutionary leap in transportation and technology, where concepts that once could only be imagined in science fiction are on the verge of becoming a reality,' he said.
'The worst possible scenario for the growth of autonomous vehicles is an inconsistent and conflicting patchwork of local, municipal and county laws that will hamper efforts to bring AV (autonomous vehicle) technology to market,' Okpaku added.
'Regulations are necessary, but regulatory restraint and consistency is equally as important if we are going to allow this industry to reach its full potential.'
GM vice president Michael Ableson said the auto giant 'enthusiastically supports policy initiatives to accelerate the development and adoption of safe, high-level vehicle automation.'
Delphi vice president Glen De Vos added that 'uniform rules that allow for the safe operation of driverless vehicles in all 50 states will be critical.'
But the Senate panel was told to exercise caution by Mary Cummings, who heads the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University.
'There is no question that someone is going to die in this technology,' she said
'The question is when and what can we do to minimize that.'
Cummings said it's not yet clear that self-driving cars can safely operate in all situations.
'We know that many of the sensors on self-driving cars are not effective in bad weather, we know people will try to hack into these systems,' she told the panel.
Cummings said it is possible to 'spoof' a car's GPS to send it off course, or to use laser devices to trick a vehicle into sensing objects which are not there.
She said a Rand Corporation study said that self-driving cars would need to drive 275 million miles (442 million kilometers) to show they are as safe as human-operated vehicles.
Cummings said the federal government needs to ensure that testing is done in a rigorous way to ensure safety.
'I am wholeheartedly in support of the research and development of self-driving cars,' she said.
'But these systems will not be ready for fielding until we move away from superficial demonstrations to principled, evidenced-based tests and evaluations.'
The activist group Consumer Watchdog warned meanwhile that the federal government should not take shortcuts on safety by 'rushing new technology to the roads.'
'Federal regulators have a process for writing rules to keep the public safe,' Consumer Watchdog's John Simpson said in a statement.
'Congress shouldn't skirt those rules just because tech industry giants like Google ask them to.'
Google self-driving trucks use smart lockers to pick up goods
Google is developing both delivery drones and self driving cars - but a new patent reveals it is also building a smart delivery truck. The patent reveals plans for driverless trucks with lockers inside the cargo area and a pin code that grants customers access to their packages.Customers would receive a message when the vehicle is nearby - meaning the end of uncertainty over delivery times.
The Autonomous Delivery Platform patent, first reported by Quartz, describes locker-like containers in the cargo area, which the receivers would type in a code or scan an NFC chip to claim their packages.
There is also the option of possibly using the credit card that purchased the packages to open the locker.
‘An autonomous road vehicle is operative to receive destination information, and to drive to a destination based on the destination information,’ reads the patent.‘A package securing subsytem is attached to the autonomous road vehicle and comprises at least one securable compartment.’
The document describes the use sensors, video cameras and range-finding lasers as a way for trucks to navigate roads and obstacles that may get in its path.
‘Automated road vehicles can use various sensors, for example, video cameras, radar sensors and laser range finders, to “see” other traffic, as well as detailed maps to navigate a road, and a communication subsystem, such as a wireless communication subsystem, to communicate with a controller and other entities.’Customers would receive a notification when the truck is about to arrive and if t is late, the truck will also let them know via text.
Google has also suggested that customers could pay for their packages when they receive them, turning the self-driving trucks into a vending machine on wheels.Some aren’t too surprised to hear the news about self-driving delivery trucks, as Google has been working on its own self-driving car since 2009 that should on the market by 2020.
Google teams up with Ford for its self-driving cars
Google is rumoured to be looking to partner with car manufacturing behemoth Ford for its self-driving vehicles.
A 'source briefed on the plans' has revealed Ford's boss Mark Fields met with Google co-founder Sergey Brin earlier this month in California to discuss the status of the talks.
The partnership could speed up the introduction of self-driving vehicles by giving the car company access to Google's software, while Google would benefit from Ford's automotive know-how.
The extent of the partnership remains under discussion and the precise details of the collaboration are unclear.
However, it is likely to include jointly building and developing cars, and the two sides have been talking for months, the source added.
Fully autonomous cars could eventually prevent thousands of crashes, deaths and injuries, reduce oil use through better traffic management and extend personal mobility to people unable to drive.
It is not clear if the talks with Ford have progressed beyond discussions with other automakers and Google said it is in talks with many other firms.
'We're not going to comment on rumour or speculation about specific conversations,' Google said in a statement.
Ford declined to confirm or deny talks with Google.
'We have been, and will continue working with many companies and discussing a variety of subjects,' Ford spokesman Alan Hall said.
Google has logged more than 1.3 million miles of autonomous driving.
It has developed a prototype pod-like self-driving car that could be driven without a steering wheel and pedals.
The rumours follow on from news that Ford will start testing its self-driving Sedans in California from next year.
Ford is officially enrolled in the California Autonomous Vehicle Testing Program to test autonomous vehicles on public roads.
Google to create self driving taxi firm to take on Uber
Google is planning to make its self driving car unit a separate firm.
Alphabet, Google's new 'umbrella' firm, is expected to make the change next year, according to Bloomberg.
It says the search giant is developing a 'ride for hire' service for the cars, putting it in a head to head battle with Uber, which has invested heavily in self driving cars.
The fleets, which would include a range of large and small vehicles, could be deployed first in confined areas like college campuses, military bases or corporate office parks, Bloomberg's source claims.
Experts say the move could allow consumers to test the technology.
'These potential ride-for-hire services could allow consumers to experience the technology and embrace it in a bigger way,' Thilo Koslowski, vice president and automotive practice leader at Gartner, told Bloomberg.
'That would help not just Google but the entire industry.'
Google's autonomous vehicles have logged more than 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) on public roads, mostly around San Francisco and Austin, Texas.
Google and Alphabet co-founder Sergey Brin said in September that self-driving cars may first appear as a hire service, as 'having the vehicle come back to us every day' meant Google could rapidly update the machines.
Bloomberg first reported in February that Google was developing a rival to Uber.
Uber, meanwhile, has hired more than 50 staff from Carnegie Mellon Univeristy for its self driving project.
'They took all the guys that were working on vehicle autonomy — basically whole groups, whole teams of developers, commercialization specialists, all the guys that find grants and who were bringing the intellectual property,' recalls a person who was there during the departures, according to the Verge.
'These guys, they took everybody.'
Uber has not revealed the work being done in the lab.
'We are excited to join the community of Pittsburgh and partner with the experts at CMU, whose breadth and depth of technical expertise, particularly in robotics, are unmatched,' said Jeff Holden, chief product officer of Uber, revealing its office there.
'As a global leader in urban transportation, we have the unique opportunity to invest in leading-edge technologies to enable the safe and efficient movement of people and things at giant scale.
'This collaboration and the creation of the Uber Advanced Technologies Center represent an important investment in building for the long term of Uber.'
'Uber is a rapidly growing company known for its innovative technology that is radically improving access to transportation for millions of global citizens,' said Andrew Moore, dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon.
'CMU is renowned for innovations that transform lives.
'We look forward to partnering with Uber as they build out the Advanced Technologies Center and to working together on real-world applications, which offer very interesting new challenges at the intersections of technology, mobility and human interactions.'
Google, meanwhile, recently secured a patent for technology to communicate with pedestrians from its cars.
Screens and/or a speaker system could be used to help the cars and humans coexist safely on the road.
The details of the patent reveal the car will be able to sense when a person is standing in front or close to it and will then decide the next step to take.
The screens, which could be mounted on the doors or hood could flash alerts like 'Stop', 'Safe Cross' or a traffic sign that would inform pedestrians about what the car is doing.
The speaker system could vocalize the text shown on the screens and send out other alerts.
The patent says, 'the vehicle may include sensors which detect an object such as a pedestrian attempting or about to cross the roadway in front of the vehicle.'
'The vehicle's computer may then determine the correct way to respond to the pedestrian.'
'The vehicle may then provide a notification to the pedestrian of what the vehicle is going to do or is currently doing.
These new vehicles can only be summoned on a smartphone from a garage to meet the driver and will greet them by name.
Nissan's Teatro for Dayz, another autonomous car revealed last month, is described as a vehicle for the 'digital native' and social media generation.
The all-white car is designed to serve as a 'clean canvas' that can be modified.