Google self-driving AI considered a ‘driver’ amidst liability concerns

Posted on 17 Feb 2016 by Cobey Bartels, Tim Brown

The US Federal Government has given the Google self-driving AI system the nod, allowing computers and software operating the self-driving cars to be considered the 'driver', raising further concerns around liability.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced the revolutionary development in a letter to Google, following the tech giant’s request for clarification on the matter.

“NHTSA will interpret ‘driver’ in the context of Google’s described motor vehicle design as referring to the SDS [self-driving system], and not to any of the vehicle occupants,” said the NHTSA in the letter to Google.

The Google self-driving autonomous vehicle system faces regulatory issues surrounding the absence of pedals and a steering wheel, as well as sensors, which NHTSA has acknowledged.

“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,” said the NHTSA.

The news follows a rapid increase in the number of self-driving systems and models being tested, none of which have conclusively addressed the legal and regulatory limitations of the autonomous vehicles.

The Google self-driving car - image courtesy of Google
The Google self-driving car – image courtesy of Google.

Allowing a Google self-driving car to be recognised as a driver for the vehicle safety standards has likely brought forward the uncertain time frame of when automated vehicles will hit US roads, but not without raising a plethora of insurance and liability questions.

Insurers are raising questions surrounding liability, after Google boldly announced earlier in the year that liability for injuries or damages resulting from design flaws or faulty components of autonomous vehicles would be accepted by the company.

While self-driving cars are continually suggested to be safer than human-driven vehicles, insurers still see a need for owners to insure.

“While the number of crashes will be greatly reduced, there is still a risk to driveless cars,” said spokesperson Loretta Worters of the Insurance Information Institute according to a CBS News report.

The risk of a computer or software failure resulting in an accident is the biggest concern and liability questions are raised around who is responsible. A driver will blame the vehicle, and the automaker will likely blame the manufacturer of individual parts deemed faulty. With such a complex supply chain, liability becomes increasingly convoluted.

In a ZDNet report, Richard Windsor, an analyst at Edison Investment Research said that the timeline for automakers to put autonomous cars on the road is being pushed back due to liability.

“Liability is the biggest problem that faces autonomous driving as sending an algorithm to prison is not a practical option. When an autonomous vehicle crashes, and they will, the question arises as to who is responsible for the crash,” Windsor said.

Another concern being raised is that if automakers were made liable for their systems, would they take the risk and develop self-driving cars, or would it simply not be viable?

NHTSA make it clear in their communication with Google that the developer of the systems may seek exemptions to rules and regulations, but whether the Feds are in favour of eliminating a human driver altogether is not yet known.

According to a Wired report, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said last month that NHTSA will be more willing to grant exemptions, including ones removing a human driver. Foxx also announced, according to the report, that he has given the Department of Transportation six months to draft rules around the testing and regulation of autonomous cars.

Liability and regulatory questions can’t simply be answered yet and developments in the legislation and regulations surrounding self-driving cars will undoubtedly dictate how long it is until we see driverless vehicles on the road.

Nissan’s take on autonmous cars and liability

According to Paige Presley, who looks after EV and technology communications for Nissan North America, Nissan’s autonomous driving (AD) technology will feature a a suite of applications to enable the driver to operate for periods of time without touching the steering wheel or looking at the road. But Nissan’s definition of AD means that cars must have someone at the wheel who can take over at any time.

This shared responsibility model seems likely to be underpin the initial liability issues likely to be faced by autonomous vehicles but Nissan did not provide any further detail as to how such a model would operate.

Nissan and Renault will launch AD technologies in more than 10 models between now and 2020. Additionally, Nissan will be rolling out a series of AD technologies starting later this year. The year 2016 will mark the debut of vehicles with single-lane control, a feature that allows cars to drive autonomously on highways, including in heavy, stop-and-go traffic.

In 2018, Renault-Nissan will launch vehicles with multiple-lane control, which can autonomously negotiate hazards and change lanes during highway driving. And 2020 will see the launch of intersection autonomy, which can navigate city intersections and heavy urban traffic without driver intervention.

Google again denies car manufacturing

Google has again made it clear that it will only consult and work alongside the auto industry.

Google’s managing director for central and Eastern Europe has told industry journal Automotive News Europe that the company does not plan to become a vehicle manufacturer. This came after previous claims that Google was working on its own autonomous vehicle.

Google has faced multiple rumours surrounding the development of its own branded self-driving car, but the tech giant has confirmed that it will not venture into a vehicle project without partnering with another automaker (or several).

According to a report in the WSJ and an article published on the Verge website, Ford and Google have already begun discussions around a potential partnership and Lexus has already had Google’s self driving tech attached to some of its vehicles as a part of ongoing of the Google self-driving system.