It may seem obvious that a vehicle not built to carry humans would have zero need for equipment such as side-view mirrors, backup cameras and windshields.
But the rulebook requires those features. Written at a time when its authors never pondered the possibility cars might one day drive themselves, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards include those components, along with steering wheels and brake pedals.
Those mandates have frustrated innovators and created regulatory uncertainty in the fledgling autonomous industry. But there's finally been a breakthrough.
In a decision more than a year in the making, NHTSA granted a request by self-driving delivery company Nuro for an exemption from some of those rules.
The company will be permitted to produce and deploy as many as 5,000 of its R2 electric delivery vehicles for a period of two years — vehicles that do not contain windshields, mirrors or backup cameras.
It's the first such approval for an AV-minded company, and it marks a milestone for the industry. The decision sheds further light on how federal officials may seek to regulate self-driving vehicles in the future, and it heightens interest in delivery applications for autonomous-driving technology.
General Motors was the first to seek an exemption for its autonomous vehicles, filing a request with NHTSA in January 2018. The company requested more sweeping changes than Nuro, and the request remains pending.
Unlike some delivery vehicles intended for sidewalk environments, Nuro's R2 vehicle is meant for the road. Designed by Roush, the R2 is 3.6 feet wide and 9 feet long and has a front end made to absorb energy in the event of a collision. It has a maximum speed of 25 mph and a 31 kilowatt-hour battery.
"They haven't been trying to adapt an existing vehicle," said Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst at Navigant Research. "They've looked at, 'What is the problem to be solved and what's the right kind of vehicle for that problem?' You don't need something as big as a Chrysler Pacifica to deliver a load of groceries."
By virtue of its zero-occupant status, smaller form and collision-minded design, the R2 is expected to be as safe as other vehicles on the road — a requirement to earn the exemption — and may actually enhance safety.
"The vehicles that we're proposing can really be a net contributor to safety in a way that's more acceptable than the notion of, say, a very large, heavy minivan," David Estrada, Nuro's chief legal and policy officer, tells Automotive News. "That can cause a lot more damage to those outside the van, and it has to keep its occupants safe inside. It's a completely different safety profile."
Still, NHTSA will be closely overseeing Nuro's operations, saying it will "maintain greater oversight of the R2 than typical for an exempt vehicle."
The exemption comes with certain conditions. Terms include mandatory reporting of data about R2's autonomous-driving systems, outreach to communities where the vehicles will be deployed and requirements that any cybersecurity breach result in an immediate grounding of the fleet, which could be lifted only with NHTSA's approval.
To date, NHTSA and the Department of Transportation have issued only voluntary guidance in the realm of automated-vehicle testing and deployments. But the conditions set a clear path for others seeking exemptions.
"They'll see what situations these vehicles are encountering and how the companies are responding," Abuelsamid said. "When there are problems — and there will be problems — the DOT will see how it's dealt with in real time and after the fact. That's crucial to understanding what, if anything, needs to be regulated. This is a good start, and more needs to be done."
Nuro received $940 million in funding from Softbank last February and launched its zero-occupant testing in Phoenix. Today, the company has centered its efforts in Houston, where it has forged a grocery-delivery partnership with Walmart.