Self-driving robot start-up Nuro Inc. has been granted regulatory permission to deploy its grocery delivery vehicles on the nation’s roads, making the company’s autonomous vehicles the first approved to temporarily sidestep car-safety standards.
The company, founded by ex-Alphabet Inc. employees and backed by SoftBank Vision Fund, won an exemption from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Thursday that allows it to deploy a car without side mirrors, rear visibility, and a glazed windshield. This relieves the company of complying with certain historic Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, the rules specifying the design, construction, and performance of cars. Those rules currently restrict self-driving cars without traditional design elements, such as steering wheels or pedals, from driving on the road for commercial purposes.
Auto regulators, in granting the exemption, are declaring that Nuro’s self-driving robots are just as safe as traditional cars. The decision will also pave the way for the dozens of companies testing self-driving technology across the U.S. to use the technology eventually to deliver packages and carry people. However, it’s a relatively limited first autonomous vehicle exemption from auto regulators, given that Nuro has said its robots won’t drive with people inside and will reach a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour.
“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,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement.
Nuro wants to use its self-driving robots to deliver groceries bought online. The company has lately been delivering items in a Toyota Motor Corp. Prius, said David Estrada, the company’s chief legal and policy officer.
Nuro petitioned the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards in October 2018 for the exemption. The petition stated that regulations impeded the company from developing a low-emission vehicle and that relief from certain parts of the standards wouldn’t “unreasonably lower the safety” of the cars.
NHTSA announced it would open Nuro’s petition for public comment in March 2019, the same day it announced it would also accept feedback on a petition from General Motors Co. The agency hasn’t said whether it will also approve General Motors Co.’s petition.
The agency can grant as many as 2,500 exemptions per manufacturer. NHTSA Acting Administrator James Owens asked Congress in November to increase that number.
“It’s an important milestone and precedent for NHTSA to set for the very first time, to acknowledge that the equipment that is necessary for the safety of a driver or passenger, does not have any utility, and could actually impair safety, on a vehicle that’s going to drive itself and never carry humans,” Estrada told Bloomberg Government.
To contact the reporter on this story: Courtney Rozen in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org