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The federal government just granted its first driverless car exemption

The federal government just granted its first driverless car exemption


Nuro is first to nab a coveted FMVSS exemption from the US Department of Transportation

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Image: Nuro

Nuro, the self-driving startup founded by two ex-Google engineers, has a new delivery robot. The R2 is the company’s second-generation vehicle, and while it looks similar to the first-generation R1 — egg-shaped, no room for a human driver, objectively cute — there is one important difference: the R2 has been granted a special exemption from federal safety requirements.

That may sound dangerous, but it’s actually pretty significant. It gives Nuro permission to produce and test vehicles that aren’t intended for human drivers. Right now, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) require cars to have basic, human controls, like steering wheels, pedals, sideview mirrors, and so on. These standards specify how vehicles must be designed before they can be sold in the US. If a proposed new vehicle doesn’t comply with all existing FMVSS, manufacturers can apply for an exemption. But the government is allowed to grant 2,500 exemptions per company per year.

“regulatory certainty”

But regulators haven’t granted any exemptions to autonomous vehicle companies — until now. Nuro says it’s the first, which allows it to begin operating its driverless delivery vehicles on public roads “with regulatory certainty,” according to David Estrada, the company’s chief legal officer.

“In order for them to grant this exemption, the process requires them to conclude that the vehicle itself is at least as safe as one that would be required to meet the standards,” he said in an interview with The Verge. “That doesn’t mean that they look at the whole vehicle. But what it means is they say, ‘When Nuro removes the mirrors and doesn’t have the windshield and doesn’t have the backup camera, we conclude that the vehicle itself will be at least as safe as if it did have these things.’”

Image: Nuro

Nuro isn’t the only company to seek an exemption from the Department of Transportation for its autonomous vehicles. General Motors submitted its own petition to mass-produce a fleet of autonomous Chevy Bolts without steering wheel and pedals. The petition has been through the public comment period, but DOT has yet to issue a response. Unlike Nuro, though, GM is seeking exemptions for vehicles that can drive over 25 mph, likely making it a more complicated case for regulators.

“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.

But Nuro’s exemption will come with some strings attached. According to the department (emphasis ours):

Given the R2’s unique and novel design, though, NHTSA has determined that it would be in the public interest to maintain greater oversight of the R2 than typical for an exempt vehicle, and has conditioned the exemption on a set of terms including mandatory reporting of information about the operation of the R2 (including the automated driving system) and required outreach to the communities where the R2 will be deployed. 

The R2 was built with the help of Detroit auto supplier Roush, which also helped build Google’s now retired “Firefly” prototype cars. The two vehicles have a lot in common: both are capped at 25 mph, lack traditional controls like steering wheels and pedals, and are adorably egg-shaped. But while the Firefly was built as a demonstrator for Google’s self-driving prowess, the R2 is designed to be a moneymaker.

Image: Nuro

Nuro says the R2 is more durable than its first-generation vehicle, able to withstand a wider variety of road conditions and weather. Without sideview mirrors, it has a narrower profile; it registers as about half as wide as a compact sedan. It’s also shorter than most cars on the road today, but it has 65 percent more cargo capacity than the R1. Temperature control keeps perishable foods fresh. Customers can input a code they get from a smartphone app on to a large exterior touchscreen to access their deliveries inside the vehicle.

There are still a host of questions about Nuro’s business model — Will people with accessibility issues want to walk all the way to the curb to retrieve their goods? Will Nuro be confined to the suburbs, or can it scale to more urban areas? — but the exemption from DOT is a clear win for the company’s future.

“The first thing on the minds of people and public policymakers is safety,” Estrada said. “So we think that the best way to do that is a vehicle designed with external safety in mind. So we are a lightweight vehicle that is less capable of inflicting harm than a 3,000-pound vehicle. It drives very safely when it comes down the road, and then when it stops, it’s narrow, it’s about two thirds the width of a regular car, easier for other cars [and] bicyclists and pedestrians to pass around.”

Building cars is expensive. Lucky for Nuro, it netted a nearly $1 billion investment from Japanese tech company SoftBank last year. Some of that cash was put toward building six R1 vehicles, though Nuro won’t say how many R2s it hopes to build.

Image: Nuro

Nuro is retiring its R1 vehicles, which were tested on public roads in Scottsdale, Arizona, from December 2018 to March 2019. During that period, the R1 delivered thousands of groceries to Fry’s Food Store customers. More recently, the company decamped to Houston, Texas, where it’s been delivering groceries and food orders for Walmart, Domino’s, and Kroger using its fleet of retrofitted Toyota Priuses.

Estrada said the company is now facing the real test of whether it can build a viable business around a fleet of funny-looking, low-speed self-driving vehicles.

“The partnership piece and the customer-facing piece are what needs a lot of muscle building,” he said. “Like how do you become great at that once you have the core technology handled? And that’s what we want to focus a lot on this year.”