U.S. DOT green lights Nuro with first ever autonomous vehicle exemption

Nuro, a leading robotics company, on Thursday was granted the first-ever exemption for an autonomous vehicle by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The DOT exemption supports Nuro’s deployment of up to 5,000 R2s on public roads without equipment specifically required for passenger vehicles, such as side mirrors or a windshield. R2 is a low-speed vehicle designed solely to carry goods and not human occupants.

Until now, autonomous exemptions by the DOT have been virtually nonexistent, with only a regulatory patchwork of exemptions from state to state. Many of the auto industry’s safety standards were written decades ago with the assumption that a licensed driver would be in control of the vehicle. In a prepared statement, the company called this “a milestone decision for industry regulation and a future of improved safety, mobility, and commerce.”

NHTSA’s decision to grant Nuro an exemption comes after three years of discussion and collaboration. Nuro submitted the exemption request in October 2018. NHTSA requested public comments in March 2019. During that comment period, many stakeholders wrote in support of the exemption, including the mayor and chief of police of Scottsdale, Arizona (where Nuro operated a delivery service from December 2018 until March 2019 and continues testing operations), Kroger (a delivery partner), as well as other automakers, self-driving technology companies, clean-energy advocates, and private citizens.

Nuro and the DOT continue to work together to both advocate for safety and protect the general public, as well as to modernize and streamline the regulatory process. At the top of the year, the DOT announced that it intends to begin rulemaking on passengerless vehicles.

“We founded Nuro on the belief that we could reimagine, design, and develop an autonomous vehicle that would make the world a safer place. Our second-generation vehicle will advance our goal of transforming local commerce, and we are gratified that the Department of Transportation, under Secretary Chao’s leadership, is promoting public safety and providing regulatory certainty for the self-driving industry. Today’s decision shows that ‘exemption’ can mean more safety,” wrote co-founder and President Dave Ferguson on the company’s Medium site. “Our world-class team solved countless novel problems to create this design, and, after extensive modeling, research, and testing, created a vehicle unlike any other on the road today.”

Nuro reports that the R2 will soon join Nuro’s fleet of self-driving Prius vehicles in Houston, making deliveries to consumers on public roads. The deployment of R2 comes a little over one year after the company launched the world’s first unmanned delivery service with its first-generation vehicle, R1, in Scottsdale. The move represented a larger-scale effort by Nuro to transform local commerce and offer an affordable, accessible delivery service to communities across the country. The effort is an attempt to bring forth a new era of neighborhood-friendly vehicles that are also socially responsible.

The R2 improves on existing safety features from the R1 and is introducing a number of brand-new features. Production will now be standardized in partnership with Roush Enterprises, a Michigan-based full-service product development supplier. R2 has a more durable custom vehicle body, equipped to handle a greater variety of roads, climates and weather conditions.

The new version will also have smooth, rounded contours where side mirrors otherwise would be placed, making it narrower and creating additional room for bicyclists and other vulnerable road users.

NHTSA’s exemption also permits R2 to continue operating its rearview cameras while moving forward, since the vehicle will never be occupied by a human driver who could otherwise become distracted by the rear video display. R2’s ability to see a complete 360-degree view of the roads at all times is therefore preserved using lidar, radar and cameras without any blind spots.