California residents share the roads with many other drivers, but in the future, cars without drivers may be making up part of the traffic. Google's driverless car passed another hurdle in its campaign for approval when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration decided that if and when driverless cars are on the roads, the software that controls them would be considered to be the 'driver." The news was given to Google on Feb. 4 via a letter from the NHTSA.
Determining who or what would be considered the driver of the self-driving cars is an important step towards getting approval for the vehicles. The cars are still facing many legal obstacles, which were outlined in the letter to Google. Some regulations are making it difficult for the cars to be tested, such as safety regulations that require brake systems that are activated by foot.
Google says that the danger it sees in their driverless cars comes from human passengers who may try to interfere with the operation of the vehicle. Regulations that would require steering wheels or brake pedals would allow passengers to take control, which, according to Google, would allow human passengers to try to override the programmed driving decisions of the car. California has proposed that all driverless cars be equipped with a steering wheel and be occupied by a licensed driver when in operation. NHTSA said it may waive some safety regulations in order to allow more driverless cars to be operated on the roads. The agency suggested that Google apply for exemptions to certain regulations.
The question of a driver in a computer-programmed driverless car is important from a legal standpoint. When someone is injured or killed in a car accident, a driver may be considered negligent. In the case of a driverless car, if the computer software is considered legally to be the driver, then someone who is injured due to a perceived fault of the operation of the driverless car could file a claim against the manufacturer or computer programmer. The possibility of human passengers being physically able to override the computer control of a driverless car could present interesting legal questions in the future if and when driverless cars are given full approval.