Last week, something very unusual happened: a legal opinion by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration set the Internet abuzz. Why? Because it informed Google that the artificial intelligence used to pilot its autonomous vehicle could be viewed as the “driver” for some (not all) regulatory purposes. But the media mostly ignored the grist of the letter, which consisted of a litany of legal smack downs to Google’s proposed interpretation of federal safety rules.
NHTSA’s message was crystal clear: Washington is in the driver’s seat — policymakers, not technologists are going to call the shots on how quickly companies like Google deploy autonomous cars. Just as it has with seat belts, airbags, emissions technology and electric cars, government will exert a decisive force on the pacing and form of the car of the future.