San Francisco – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has sent a letter to Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) saying that U.S. officials could consider the artificial intelligence system used in an autonomous car as a driver, under federal law. Declarations from the U.S vehicle safety regulators could give a great advantage to Google in a race composed by several carmakers, which want to put the first self-driving cars on the American roads.

Google, which is a unit of Alphabet Inc., sent a proposal to the NHTSA last year. It said that the company wanted to construct a car that could drive itself without need of a human driver. As a response, the institution concluded that the autonomous cars developed by the tech giant would not have a driver in the traditional sense, when comparing it to driving methods of the last 100 years.

Google self-driving car prototype, already tested on the streets. Photo: Google

“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,” NHTSA’s letter said, according to Reuters.

Companies such as Google, Tesla, Toyota, Ford and probably Apple, are developing autonomous cars that are controlled by artificial intelligence (AI). The vehicles will be connected in real time in order to constantly update its driving algorithms once the system has learned new information. It is expected that first public sales of autonomous cars will start in 2020.

Autonomous carmakers say that state and federal safety rules are slowing the process of testing and selling the vehicles of the future. Last year, the California state issued a set of rules that should be followed by car companies. Specifically, self-driving cars should be equipped with a steering wheel and should be “controlled” by a licensed driver.

Kelley Blue Book analyst, Karl Brauer said that other legal problems need to be solved among U.S. authorities and car companies, when referring to self-driving vehicles. However, he explained to Reuters that NHTSA declarations could substantially impulse the process of putting autonomous vehicles on the road.

Google must certify that the AI system of the cars meets the same security standards that has a common vehicle driven by a human, NHTSA added in the letter, saying that it is the next relevant step to determine whether autonomous cars will be approved or not.

It is expected that Google will team up with major automakers to develop autonomous cars. Google would provide the self-driving technology and car developers would be in charge of constructing the car itself.

Chris Urmson, who leads the Google’s self-driving car project since 2009, wrote in a letter to the NHTSA that people think that autonomous cars are “worth a shot”, since 94 percent of crashes in the U.S. are caused by human error.

“The status quo on our roads is simply not problem-free,  it has a real cost, not only in productivity and stress, but in lives damaged and destroyed by the mistakes of human drivers. Around the world, 1.2 million people die on the roads each year.” He wrote, according to U.S.A. Today.

Source:  National Highway Traffic Safety Administration