Mixed Messages from the NHTSA

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has recently been an important booster for self-driving cars.

Although it’s not clear how much sway the agency has (most US transportation laws are implemented at the state level), the NHTSA has been trying to clear a legal path for self-driving cars.

Friday, however, the NHTSA qualified their support somewhat, and made clear what development direction they favor.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said on Friday that self-driving cars — which do not have steering wheels or brake/gas pedals — can be made available for purchase by in the US only after they clear some potentially ‘significant’ legal hurdles.

However, NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said pointed out that a new report released by the agency on Friday shows there were fewer legal hurdles in deploying self-driving cars with human controls, compared to fully autonomous cars.

The NHTSA appears to taking sides in the split over whether to develop “Level 3” vehicles, or skip right to “Level 4”. Level 3 vehicles require mechanisms for the driver to take over from the computer, whereas Level 4 vehicles entrust the computer to drive in all situations.

Tesla is working on, and indeed has released, Level 3 technology. Google and many auto manufacturers, however, are hoping to skip Level 3, citing the complexity of transferring control between the human and computer drivers.

The California Blog has a little more depth on the NHTSA’s statements.

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