Only three weeks ago, federal safety regulators issued a new rule that ostensibly paved the way for certain autonomous vehicles to reach U.S. roads in widespread fashion. Now that rule sits in limbo.
Six days before President Joe Biden's inauguration, NHTSA officials finalized a rule that, among other things, exempts self-driving vehicles designed to never carry human occupants from crashworthiness standards.
It seemed like a big development for companies focused on delivery-only autonomous applications, such as Nuro, which have gained traction as consumer demand for delivery services increased during the pandemic.
But here's the complication: The new rule only goes into effect after it's published in the Federal Register. That did not happen before the Biden administration assumed power, and now the rule is among many undergoing a regulatory review by incoming U.S. Department of Transportation leadership.
Whether the rule will merely be delayed while new officials conduct due diligence or whether it may get scuttled entirely remains unclear. Two industry representatives who have followed the progress of the rule since it was first proposed in March 2020 said they did not anticipate it would be controversial when the new administration took office, but each also worried about that prospect."There are some things that just never emerge from that review, but I don't think this will be one of them," said Matthew Lipka, head of policy at Nuro. "I think the Biden administration will move forward."
For a company such as Nuro, much hangs in the balance. Lipka said the company has seen demand for its contactless delivery services triple — and in some areas grow even faster — since the onset of the pandemic. In late December, the California Department of Motor Vehicles granted Nuro the first permit to begin driverless operations..
A year ago, the U.S. Transportation Department granted Nuro an exemption from certain federal motor vehicle safety standards that mandated side-view mirrors, a backup camera and a windshield — all irrelevant without the presence of a human occupant.