It seems like the federal regulators have been convinced by Google that in some situations, the cars have a heart.
In a letter sent this month to Google, Paul Hemmersbaugh, the chief counsel for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, seemed to accept that the computers controlling a self-driving car are the same as a human driver.
The agency’s letter is certain to sharpen the debate over regulation of cars that can drive themselves, even though the technology is still probably years from becoming mainstream. The letter is also at odds with proposed rules in California, where much of the autonomous vehicle research is taking place.
Google has had setbacks with its autonomous car project after the California Motor vehicles Department issued draft regulations in December that would require a human driver to remain “in the loop” in a self-driving car. In other words, someone with a driver’s license should be prepared to take over at any moment.
“If driverless cars dramatically reduce accidents, as it appears they will, then speeding up their adoption is good,” said Wendall Wallach, a Yale ethicist. But he added that the N.H.T.S.A. letter “creates the illusion that by declaring self-driving cars the equivalent of human drivers, we have resolved the broader societal challenges.”
There is no consensus within the automotive industry about the ultimate role of human drivers in the face of rapid progress in artificial intelligence technologies. There is also uncertainty within the industry about whether the technology is advancing quickly enough that it will soon drive a car more safely than humans.
Much of the industry has committed to developing autonomous technologies that assist drivers. Last year, Toyota announced a $1 billion research effort adjacent to Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology intended to focus on artificial intelligence that helps human drivers, rather than autonomous vehicles. The industry has begun to deploy a variety of automation systems as safety features, like lane keeping and so-called “traffic jam assist.”
The legal challenges that artificial intelligence will pose have become more complex as technology has advanced. It was once fashionable to say that the machines would only do exactly what they were programmed to do.