NHTSA told Google of its decision in a February 4 letter to the company that is now posted on the agency's website. The letter was in response to a proposal for a self-driving car that was submitted to the agency last November by Google's self-driving car business unit.
In its response, NHTSA granted a number of Google requests for interpretation of provisions in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) as they might apply to Google's "described design for motor vehicles that [the company] is in the process of developing and testing." In particular, the letter said, "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."
It went on to say further, "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."
The letter noted that current regulations weren't equipped to deal with autonomous vehicles, and that further issues related to meeting FMVSS regulations - such as those relating to foot and hand controls and even mirror placement - still need to be addressed. Google's plans for its most advanced autonomous vehicles include no steering wheel or pedals.
The NHTSA letter comes at a time when autonomous vehicle makers have complained that state and federal safety regulations are holding back the development, testing, and deployment of the new technology. Just last December, for example, the California DMV unveiled draft rules that required self-driving cars have a human driver behind the wheel - a decision that Google, in a statement, said was "gravely disappointing."
For more see the full NHTSA response to Google .