U.S. safety agency says Google’s self-driving cars qualify as drivers

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Google just got a big boost from U.S. safety regulators in their plan to get self-driving cars on the road. For the first time, the system piloting an autonomous car could legally be considered a driver under federal law, a big step forward in the company’s vision for roads filled with self-driving cars.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) informed Google of its decision in a letter to the company on Feb. 4, according to a Reuters report.

“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,” the NHTSA’s letter said. “We agree with Google its (self-driving car) will not have a ‘driver’ in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years.”

Other vehicle manufacturers are scrambling to develop their autonomous car divisions, such as Tesla Motors.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who also founded PayPal and private space enterprise SpaceX, said in a speech to a tech company last year that driving is too dangerous for humans and may one day be outlawed when autonomous cars prove to be safer.

Musk founded Tesla in 2003 and has already proved to be a technology trailblazer; his Tesla cars are seen by many as having resurrected the electric car industry, and has also been developing batteries at powering personal homes.

Google has recently been posting job openings in their self-driving car unit, suggesting the project is continuing to grow.

The NHTSA’s letter is the most detailed list of obstacles Google must overcome in order to launch their project on a full public scale.

Google is currently testing the cars near company headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. as well as in Austin, Texas. They will begin testing in Kirkland, Wash. later this month.