One of the biggest obstacles to getting self-driving cars road legal in America may have just evaporated. In a decision that could change the way we think about car travel, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has declared that the computer in Google’s autonomous cars can be considered the driver, for all intents and purposes. This position could eventually pave the way for autonomous cars to hit the streets – with or without a human occupant.

Existing federal vehicle safety rules are, understandably, written with human drivers and traditional cars in mind. That is, no matter what behavior is being governed, there is always a human being ultimately held responsible for the actions (or lack thereof) that take place on the roadway. Some regulations also dictate behaviors for specific car parts that Google’s self-driving car doesn’t have; it lacks a steering wheel and foot pedals, for instance.

Related: Google is working on wireless charging for its self-driving cars

With the introduction of driverless cars, the whole game is changing, and governing agencies are struggling to figure out how the new technology fits into a world that didn’t see them coming. How agencies such as the NHTSA interpret federal vehicle safety rules to make sense of the “Self-driving Car System” (their term for Google’s computer) is the key to making autonomous cars a real and legal part of our road traffic.

It’s a little more complex than replacing the “who” of current rules with the “what” of self-driving car technology, but that’s where it starts. The NHTSA letter, drafted in response to a request from Google, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to autonomous cars meeting federal vehicle regulations. It sets a precedent, however, for considering artificial intelligence (because, let’s face it, that’s what the computer in an autonomous car really is) on par with human drivers.

Via The Verge

Images via Google