Google just got the go-ahead it needed to make self-driving cars a reality

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Google has just gotten the U.S. government to acknowledge that its autonomous car system is a driver.

In a letter to Google, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration outlines when and how the company's self-driving system could be considered a driver. In an effort to legally replace human drivers with artificial ones, Google's Self-Driving Car Project team has sought the recommendations of the NHTSA. In response, the agency granted Google quite an array of circumstances in which self-driving cars would be acceptable.

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"As a foundational starting point for the interpretations below, NHTSA will interpret 'driver' in the context of Google's described motor vehicle design as referring to the SDS, and not to any of the vehicle occupants," the agency writes. "We agree with Google its SDV will not have a 'driver' in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than 100 years."

 Google Just Got the Go-Ahead It Needed to Make Self-Driving Cars a Reality
Source: Tony Avelar/AP

The letter goes on to say that given Google's description of its automated cars, "even if it were possible for a human occupant to determine the location of Google's steering control system, and sit immediately behind it, that human occupant would not be capable of actually driving the vehicle as described by Google. If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the 'driver' as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving. In this instance, an item of motor vehicle equipment, the SDS, is actually driving the vehicle."

This interpretation could be big for car manufacturers working to build intelligent cars. However, while the recognition of a self-driving system as a driver is a milestone, it is far from the last word on self-driving cars.

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Google just got the go-ahead it needed to make self-driving cars a reality
Google's new self-driving prototype car drives around a parking lot during a demonstration at Google campus on Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Mountain View, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Shown is the dashboard of Daimler's Freightliner Inspiration self-driving truck Wednesday, May 6, 2015, in Las Vegas. Although much attention has been paid to autonomous vehicles being developed by Google and traditional car companies, Daimler believes that automated tractor-trailers will be rolling along highways before self-driving cars are cruising around the suburbs. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff (L) takes a ride in a self-driving car at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California on Wednesday, July 01, 2015.AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
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FILE - In this Sept. 25, 2012, file photo, California Gov. Jerry Brown, front left, rides in a driverless car to a bill signing at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. California state officials on Thursday, June 18, 2015 released reports detailing six accidents that involved self-driving car prototypes, reversing a policy that had shielded details of how the next-generation technology is performing during testing on public roads. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
A Tesla Motors Inc. Model S electric automobile fitted with Robert Bosch GmbH automated driving technology drives on a test track in Boxberg, Germany, on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. The market for automated-driving systems might total $42 billion by 2025, Boston Consulting Group estimated in January. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A GPS driving sensor antennae sits on the back of a Tesla Motors Inc. Model S electric automobile at the Robert Bosch GmbH driverless technology press event in Boxberg, Germany, on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. The market for automated-driving systems might total $42 billion by 2025, Boston Consulting Group estimated in January. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - FEBRUARY 02: U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx inspects a Google self-driving car at the Google headquarters on February 2, 2015 in Mountain View, California. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx joined Google Chairman Eric Schmidt for a fireside chat where he unveiled Beyond Traffic, a new analysis from the U.S. Department of Transportation that anticipates the trends and choices facing our transportation system over the next three decades. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A camera peers out from the front grill of Google's self-driving car in Mountain View, California, on May 13, 2014. A white Lexus cruised along a road near the Google campus, braking for pedestrians and scooting over in its lane to give bicyclists ample space. AFP PHOTO/Glenn CHAPMAN (Photo credit should read GLENN CHAPMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: People look at camera on top of a Google self-driving car at the Google headquarters on September 25, 2012 in Mountain View, California. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed State Senate Bill 1298 that allows driverless cars to operate on public roads for testing purposes. The bill also calls for the Department of Motor Vehicles to adopt regulations that govern licensing, bonding, testing and operation of the driverless vehicles before January 2015. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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As the agency notes, "In many instances, interpreting the term 'driver' in a manner that Google has requested does not necessarily change the requirements of the regulation or otherwise fully resolve the issue Google seeks to address."

The NHTSA has limited abilities. Though it can help Google meet the requirements of certain existing traffic and transportation laws by identifying its SDS as a driver, it can't override the law. In particular, laws that require cars to have certain features, like steering wheels and gearshifts, will have to be augmented to include self-driving cars that may not have these accoutrement.

 Google Just Got the Go-Ahead It Needed to Make Self-Driving Cars a Reality
Source: Tony Avelar/AP

Google and other car companies investing in autonomous vehicles have expressed dismay at some of the early legislation aimed at smart cars and the slow-moving nature of bureaucracy in adapting laws to this new technology. In getting the NHTSA to accept the SDS as a driver, the company is likely seeking alternative ways to get its technology approved in the event that local and national governments fail to pass new regulations quickly. But as the NHTSA says, this isn't a full solution. Eventually Google will need to seek exemption from certain laws.

This is just one area of the law Google has to circumnavigate in order to get its vehicles on the road. A recent patent indicates the company is also interested in putting autonomous delivery vehicles on the road — a territory not currently defined by the legal system.

In the meantime, the NHTSA is exploring a re-examination of current legislation to see if it's relevant to the shift that's happening from manual driving to automated. The review could result in certain laws and provisions being axed or altered in order to usher in this new wave of car technology. However, such changes are likely to take months, even years.

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