When Nuro’s R1 self-driving vehicle started delivering groceries in Arizona in late 2018, it sported a pair of unexpected and unnecessary appendages: side-view mirrors. Unexpected, because the press photos that accompanied its debut showed the toaster-like robot without them. Unnecessary, because there’s nobody inside the R1—neither driver nor passenger—to use them.
Its successor, the newly announced R2, can drop the vestigia. Federal regulators have freed Nuro from a few design requirements that no longer apply when the human’s gone. The exemption is the first of its kind for the self-driving industry, and it signals that America’s bureaucrats are willing to unchain autonomous vehicles from rules written for another age.
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The green light came Thursday morning from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which approved Nuro’s petition for exemptions from three rules in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, the mighty tome that dictates just about every detail of how vehicles are designed, built, and tested. Over the next two years, Nuro can build up to 5,000 vehicles that don’t have side-view mirrors or a windshield, and whose rear-facing camera doesn’t turn off once the vehicle is moving forward.
The allowance comes more than a year after Nuro filed its petition, marking the rare time a Silicon Valley startup has asked the government for permission rather than forgiveness. It was worth the wait, says the company’s policy lead, David Estrada. “We have that regulatory certainty now.”
This may seem a small step. Nuro, founded in 2016 by a pair of Google veterans, is focused on delivering food (Kroger groceries and Domino’s pizzas) to suburban homes, with pilots running in Texas and Arizona. Last year it pulled in a $940 million investment from Softbank. The R2 (which looks just like the R1, though a shade bigger and featuring improvements like heated and cooled food compartments) is designated as a low-speed vehicle, capped at 25 miles per hour. As a result, it’s subject to fewer rules than a standard car or truck. Plus, it comes four years after federal regulators said they could consider a computer to be a driver. But while it may seem logical or obvious to allow a vehicle without occupants to forgo the sorts of features that cater to humans, the exemptions mark an official acknowledgement from NHTSA that self-driving cars merit their own rules.
“Since this is a low-speed self-driving delivery vehicle, certain features that the department traditionally required—such as mirrors and windshield for vehicles carrying drivers—no longer make sense,” US transportation secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement.
That thinking will likely encourage other self-driving outfits working on new kinds of vehicles and may lend some credence to exuberant concepts with spinning seats and wall-to-wall screens. For its part, Nuro’s already thinking ahead to faster vehicles, which would mean slipping out of more rules. “If we want to go over 25 mph, there are about 20 more standards that, by the same logic, should not apply,” Estrada says. Those include things like airbags and brake-testing procedures that mandate having a human behind the wheel, which don’t make sense for a vehicle packed with groceries. “Why would you need a passenger airbag?” Estrada says. He joined Nuro late last year but knew cofounders Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu from their time together on Google’s self-driving project. As Google’s lawyer, Estrada helped shape the first self-driving regulations in Nevada and California.
Nuro is the first self-driving company to win an exemption but not the first to ask for one. In January 2018, 10 months before Nuro, General Motors filed a petition on behalf of its robocar subsidiary, Cruise. Its petition is more complex, as it applies to a Chevrolet Bolt without a steering wheel, which will go above 25 mph and carry passengers. GM asked for 16 exemptions, from requirements including dashboard instruments, a gear shifter, self-cancelling turn signals (“self-cancellation cannot be measured relative to rotation of a nonexistent steering wheel”), and more. Cruise has since debuted the Origin, the six-seat shuttle that will underpin the robotaxi business it plans to someday launch in San Francisco. The clean sheet design may require even more exemptions.
The biggest player in this space, Alphabet’s Waymo, is looking to avoid this process by going to market with conventional, NHTSA-compliant Chrysler Pacifica minivans retrofitted to drive themselves. Other big outfits like Argo and Cruise haven’t shared any plans for novel vehicles, but Nuro’s breakthrough should give hope to Zoox, which has touted work on a new kind of robocar (though it’s yet to share details on what that looks like).
Estrada calls the 16-month process, which included a public comment period and lengthy conversations with NHTSA officials, thorough and deliberate, but the move has its critics. The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group, last year asked NHTSA to reject Nuro’s request, along with General Motors’. Executive director Jason Levine cites two general concerns: first, that the petitions from Nuro and GM provide little information on how safe their vehicles actually are. The filings, which run 20 and 100 pages long, respectively, discuss things like sensor configurations but don’t give details on actual performance.
Second, Levine points to a December 2018 rule change by NHTSA, when the agency said it would no longer check that applications for exemptions are complete before publishing them and starting the public comment period. NHTSA portrayed the move as a way to expedite the process, but Levine worries that the public might not have the chance to see information NHTSA requests from companies after an initial filing. “It raises all sorts of non-transparency questions,” Levine says. “It violates the concept of allowing the public to participate in a process that deals with public streets and public safety.” A representative for Nuro declined to comment on whether the company submitted any documentation for its exemptions beyond its original filing. NHTSA did not reply to questions about the rule change and Nuro’s petition.
Meanwhile, Nuro is moving ahead with production of the R2 vehicle, looking to deploy it “soon” in Houston, where it’s moving groceries and pizzas—no side-view mirrors or windshield needed.
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