Imagine getting into the drivers’ seat of your car with only a smooth dashboard in front of you. No steering wheel. Would you feel safer, or more at risk? At least one Google executive wants its driverless cars to be steering wheel-less too.
Google’s driverless cars are moving their way through testing faster than many people expected. Business Insider estimates that 10 million vehicles will have some self-driving features by 2020.
However, most of these features, like emergency braking or one-button parking, keep humans in control of the vehicle. Google’s driverless cars won’t. In fact, Chris Urmson, technical director of the Google self-driving car project, is pushing to remove even optional human control from future driverless cars.
Cars Without Steering Wheels
Urmson and his team are pushing for the creation of vehicles missing key features, like steering wheels, accelerator pedals, and brake pedals. Urmson told NPR:
“It really starts with safety. In America, there’s 33,000 people that are killed on the road every year, and to put that in perspective, that’s equivalent of a 737 falling out of the sky five days a week. … There is just a tremendous opportunity there to save lives — 94 percent of those accidents are due to human error, and the good news is we can build software and hardware that can see the road and pay attention all the time and react more quickly and keep people safe on the road.”
The Google executive emphasized the risks of human drivers making bad decisions, like drunk driving, which put themselves and others at risk.
NHTSA Regulations and Driverless Cars
In November 2015, Google sent a request for interpretation of several safety regulations to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), asking, “Who is the driver in a driverless car?”
Th NHTSA has regulations designed to make modern cars safe to drive. But Google’s self-driving car is making many of those regulations obsolete. The driver, it argued, was not the person sitting in the front left seat. It is the car’s artificial intelligence.
On February 4, 2016, NHTSA agreed. In its response letter, the NHTSA 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. . . . 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.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s clear sailing for Google. It will still have to demonstrate that its driverless car meets the NHTSA’s safety regulations or apply for and receive exemptions before taking taking them to the streets.
David Christensen is an auto accident attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. If you or someone you know has been seriously injured in a motor vehicle accident, contact Christensen Law today for a free consultation.