The U.S. government has decided to recognize the computer "brain" of a car rather than a human brain as the driver. This new regulation could be what it takes for society to accept the self-driving car, a concept unfamiliar, confusing and even frightening for many.
According to a Reuters report Wednesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Feb. 4 approved a proposed vehicle design from Alphabet's (GOOGL) Google subsidiary for a car that has "no need for a human driver."
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," said the government agency in a letter posted on its Web site.
This issue of what is a "brain" when it comes to driving is important because of the many questions as to legal and financial responsibility for accidents in these self-driving vehicles. The auto industry has been urging regulatory bodies to revise and expand the rules.
Karl Brauer, an analyst for Kelley Blue Blook, said such new rules could "substantially streamline the process of putting autonomous vehicles on the road." Nissan (NSANY) , for example, has said it will have such a vehicle on the road by 2020.
Currently, rules prescribing the way vehicles may operate legally on U.S. roads presume a human driver. Google, in December, expressed displeasure with California draft rules for autonomous cars that require a licensed driver to be in the front seat at all times. The draft rules were opened to manufacturer comment in January.
Google's approach to driverless technology is more sweeping than other automakers. Google's vision is a car with a brain that no steering wheel, brake or accelerator. Carlos Ghosn, Nissan's chief executive, says his company's first autonomous car still will need a human driver that can take the controls in various situations.
Automakers like Nissan have been equipping vehicles with advanced safety features like adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and lane departure assist that make cars more autonomous, but also require the driver to pay attention and intervene when the situation calls for it.
When a driverless car has an accident who is responsible? The responsible party might be Google, when its artificial intelligence is driving the car in the accident. A central premise for driverless technology is its promise of far fewer accidents, since more than 90% of mishaps stem from human error. The insurance industry is already wrestling with the prospect of fewer claims, premiums and profits.
Volvo Cars, a unit of the China's Zhejiang Geely, has said it eventually will accept responsibility for accidents in its autonomous cars and has pledged that by 2020 no one will be killed in a Volvo automobile. Google has also pledged to be responsible for its cars involved in accidents.
"If you meet Swedish engineers, they're pretty genuine," said Lex Kerssemakers, CEO of Volvo Cars North America. "They don't say things when they don't believe in it."