Computers as Drivers?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has advised Google of NHTSA’s decision in a previously undisclosed Feb. 4  letter now posted on the NHTSA website this week. NHTSA stated that it “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.” The letter continued, “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.” While the NHTSA decision will certainly add momentum to federal approval of similar technologies and adoption of these new technologies in auto manufacturing, its decision is not itself a “ruling,” as has been suggested in some publications. And NHTSA’s position will not in and of itself have an immediate impact on the much more complicated U.S. legal system, whose laws are currently premised on the concept of a human being operating a vehicle. Negligence and product liability law, largely state based, as well as insurance regulations, policy forms, department of motor vehicle standards, and criminal codes will take decades to embrace and integrate the notion that “computers = a human” as a driver. Our legal system will, as a whole, lag behind the advancement in these technologies. And the lag will be exacerbated by the judicial and dispute resolution processes which will complicate these advancements.

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