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U.S. Approves First Autonomous Vehicle Outside of Safety Rules

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently granted permission for a new type of autonomous vehicle for use on public roads, bypassing established safety standards. Permissible road access for vehicles previously required adherence to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards calling for certain performance, construction, and design elements. New delivery vehicles were approved for exemptions to those rules.

Nuro, an American robotics company, recently developed a delivery vehicle that operates without a human onboard. The service allows supermarket customers to place an order online and provides door-to-door delivery within the local area. The low-speed vehicles are meant to transport groceries, dry cleaning, or take-out orders. The R1 driverless, goods-only prototype stuck to many vehicle construction regulations meant for vehicles that accommodate a driver. Developers saw many of those features as unnecessary, so they filed for exemptions from those rules.

Regulatory Exemptions

The features deemed unnecessary by designers included a windshield, mirrors, and rear visibility. Designers argued that with the remote operator controlling the vehicle using cameras, the features that facilitated human-driver visibility no longer served a reasonable purpose. Likewise, rules that necessitated gas pedals, brake pedals, and steering wheels did not apply to the fully autonomous vehicles. As part of the new rules permitting the use of public roads, Nuro delivery vehicles will maintain speeds below 25 miles per hour. They are also restricted from transporting people inside.

In challenging the regulations, technologists argued that the established regulations held back innovation and served no discernable safety benefit. In
October 2018, Nuro filed for an exemption from the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The following March, the period of public comment commenced, and approval came in early February 2020.

Exemptions and Safety

The exemption approval implies that the self-driving Nuro is seen as safe. This green light will allow more innovation in the area of self-driving vehicles. As these new technologies emerge, regulators must ensure that the safety of traditional road users is not compromised for the wrong reasons. Technological advances can be beneficial for many reasons, but the responsibility to safety must remain paramount. Business competition concerns aside, we cannot trade road safety for the comparatively trivial convenience factor.

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