The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has allowed Nuro, an autonomous vehicle startup, to test up to 5,000 low-speed autonomous electric vehicles for deliveries of items such as pizza and groceries. NHTSA has granted Nuro a special exemption from the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard requirements, allowing the company to test vehicles designed to be self-driving, without a human driver. This is the first company to be granted a self-driving vehicle exception; Nuro stated it was a “milestone for the industry.” This approval was the culmination of three years of negotiation. NHTSA stated it will have more oversight over Nuro’s vehicles, including mandatory operational reporting and community outreach.
“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.
Nuro’s R2 vehicle deployment will begin in Houston. Nuro will test the vehicles on public roads in the next few weeks. The R2 will make short trips only on pre-mapped neighborhood streets. In its petition to NHTSA, Nuro stated that human remote operators would be able to take over driving if necessary. Customers will input a code from their smartphone app onto an exterior touchscreen to retrieve their goods in the R2.
“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,” David Estrada, Nuro’s Chief Legal Officer said. “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.’”
The vehicles are “about half the width of a regular car, has no steering wheel or seating positions and boasts gull-wing cargo doors reminiscent of the time-traveling car in the ‘Back to the Future’ films.” The vehicles will also not include mirrors and other controls for humans. R2s will only carry goods. Nuro stated, “We custom-designed R2 to enrich local commerce with last-mile delivery of consumer products, groceries, and hot food from local stores and restaurants. With its specially designed size, weight, pedestrian-protecting front end, operating speed, electric propulsion, and cautious driving habits, R2 is ready to begin service as a socially responsible neighborhood vehicle that you can trust.” Walmart and Domino’s Pizza are set to begin delivery projects with Nuro.
The R2 made improvements from its partnership with its American supplier, Roush, including improved durability, 65 percent more compartment space than R1, updated sensors, temperature controls for cargo, and extended battery life. The exemption has allowed mirrors to be replaced with cameras and other sensors and the windshield with a panel that absorbs energy, which will help protect pedestrians. Nuro has stated that these exemptions have helped, but regulation needs to change as the nature of driving changes.
Nuro stated that Americans “waste a lot of time running errands” and it would like to see “a future where everything comes to you, on-demand, for free.” The company’s next challenge is testing its product. “The partnership piece and the customer-facing piece are what needs a lot of muscle building,” Estrada 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.”
After Houston, Nuro hopes to expand R2 deployment to other cities.