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Google to Federal Government: Where We're Going We Don't Need Typical Cars

Does a robot car need a turn-signal switch?

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Earlier this week, Google scored a political win when the national roadway safety agency approved the company’s self-driving system as a legal driver.

But Google asked for much more. And those requests, in a November letter to the Federal agency that Re/code obtained, reveal more about the ambitions of Google’s autonomous vehicle business.

With fully driverless cars there’s no need for a human driver, argues Chris Urmson, Google’s self-driving car director, in the 23-page memo to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

There’s also no need for a bunch of the stuff inside cars that us mere mortals use. And, if Google has its way, the stuff it won’t have to pay for inside future autonomous vehicles.

For instance:

  • Brakes: Rules for self-driving cars don’t need to require foot-controlled service brakes, Google argues, because the self-driving car doesn’t need a foot to brake.
  • Turn signal cancellation: Same for this — no manual override necessary.
  • Controls and displays: Here’s Urmson: “Rather than having a human driver whose attention can be diverted or who can make mistakes in selecting controls or fail to observe or mis-read the various indicators, the [self-driving system] will obtain all relevant information instantaneously through its sensor systems and will ensure through its computers and safety logic that appropriate action is taken.” Translation: Robot’s got this.
  • Headlamp beam switch: Don’t need switches to turn on lights, because the car will do it automatically.

Urmson’s requests are consistent with Google’s dogged claim that human drivers — and, by extension, partial self-driving cars — are more perilous for roadways than robot cars. The car companies, which need to sell hunks of metal every year, disagree.

For the moment, so do Federal regulators. While NHTSA acquiesced to Google’s request that its self-driving system be treated as a legal driver, it did not agree on the vehicle interior appeals. In its response, the agency said it sides with Google on headlamps, but noted that it wouldn’t recommend changes to laws “under existing test procedures.”

Same with service brakes — the agency said it gets that an AI can operate brakes independently, but claimed compliance standards weren’t ready to oversee this yet. “In the interim,” the agency wrote, “Google may wish to consider petitioning the agency for an exemption from these provisions.”

Google probably will.

Although the argument laid out in Urmson’s letter isn’t new, it does reiterate that Google’s self-driving car team is thinking of revamping the entire vehicle, not just the driving component. And it reveals how Google is thinking about its manufacturing suppliers. ​(Google has said multiple times it will not make cars alone.)

Are Ford or General Motors willing to strip out service brakes from their cars? Google might be asking them to.

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