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US guidance crucial to development of self-driving cars - Google

NHTSA told Google that it agreed it would consider the self-driving computer system as the “driver”.

A Google self-driving car. Picture: AFP.

WASHINGTON/DETROIT - Alphabet Inc's Google unit told US auto safety regulators that the government's interpretation of motor vehicle safety rules is "extremely important" to its further development of fully self-driving cars.

In a 12 November letter to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reviewed by Reuters on Wednesday, the director of Google's self-driving car project said the agency's decision on how to construe safety regulations "will have major impact" on its development.

NHTSA told Google in a 4 February letter that it agreed it could consider a Google self-driving computer system as the "driver" of the vehicle - a major boost to getting self-driving cars on the road. But the agency but stopped short of agreeing to immediately waive all safety rules needed to allow fully self-driving cars on the roads as sought in Google's letter.

In a statement on Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said: "We are taking great care to embrace innovations that can boost safety and improve efficiency on our roadways. Our interpretation that the self-driving computer system of a car could, in fact, be a driver is significant. But the burden remains on self-driving car manufacturers to prove that their vehicles meet rigorous federal safety standards."

In the 12 November letter, Chris Urmson, head of Google's self-driving car project, said the company's driverless vehicle was designed to "meet or exceed" US safety standards. Urmson also noted that automated systems, such as Google's, "react faster than human-driven cars" and "will not be subject to driver distraction or impairment."

In its 4 February response, NHTSA 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, requirements for braking systems activated by foot control, cannot be waived immediately. Federal regulations requiring equipment like steering wheels and brake pedals would have to be formally rewritten before Google could offer cars without those features.

On Wednesday, longtime advocate Clarence Ditlow who is head of the Center for Auto Safety, told Reuters: "It's better to write a stand-alone rule for driverless vehicles. It may take more work, but the end result is better for the consumer and the driverless vehicle maker. And it may take less time than rewriting all the standards."

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