Automakers and software companies alike have made truly remarkable progress when it comes to the development of completely autonomous vehicles. Indeed, what once seemed like the stuff of science fiction is now reality, as prototype self-driving cars can be observed out on the roads and highways in several U.S. states.
As much as the technology has advanced, both automakers and software companies have complained in recent years about being held back in terms of testing and deployment by a vast network of safety rules at both the state and federal level.
Interestingly enough, however, the National Highway Safety Administration, the federal agency tasked with overseeing vehicle safety, recently granted computer giant Google a significant victory in its quest to get completely autonomous vehicles on the roads.
In a lengthy letter sent earlier this month and posted on the NHTSA website, the agency informs Google that its artificial intelligence operating the car could be classified as the driver for the purposes of federal law.
"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,” reads the letter.
What this means from a practical perspective is that Google -- and likely its competitors -- will now be completely free to design technology that creates a sort of two-way communication between vehicle systems and artificial drivers, effectively taking humans out of the equation.
Perhaps more significantly for our purposes, it means that since the software can be considered the driver, it is the designer that would theoretically be held liable in the event of a car accident.
It should be noted, however, that the NHTSA's ruling does not mean that equipment like steering wheels, brakes or even dashboard warning lights can be omitted going forward.
Indeed, the NHTSA letter indicates that even though Google has concerns about humans making poor decisions to override the artificial intelligence, this type of equipment cannot simply disappear absent the formal rewriting of federal regulations.
It's truly fascinating to see the degree to which autonomous vehicle technology has evolved over the past decade. It will be even more fascinating to see where it ends up in another decade thanks to the decision of the NHTSA.
If you've been seriously injured or lost a loved one in a car crash, please consider speaking with an experienced legal professional who can explain the law, outline your options and pursue justice on your behalf.