Nuro, The autonomous delivery startup, which financed $ 940 million from the SoftBank Vision Fund last year, is the first company to receive driverless exemption from the federal government.
The U.S. Department of Transportation exemption applies to Nuro's newest – and unseen until Thursday – low-speed electric vehicle called R2, which is used for local delivery to restaurants, grocery stores, and other businesses. This is a milestone for both Nuro and the autonomous automotive industry and a signal for how the federal government could regulate this technology.
The R2 will shortly be part of Nuro's fleet of self-driving Prius vehicles in Houston and will deliver to consumers on public roads, the company said. This assignment follows Nuro's partnership with Kroger in 2018 to manage a delivery service in Arizona. The pilot, who originally used Toyota Prius vehicles, switched to delivery R1.
Nuro's second-generation low-speed delivery vehicle is unmanned and is operated exclusively with an automated drive system. Without a human driver, the vehicle needs some of the traditional and nationwide characteristics of passenger cars, such as side mirrors or a transparent windshield.
"Because it is a self-driving, low-speed delivery vehicle, certain features traditionally required by the ministry, such as mirrors and windshields, no longer make sense for vehicles that carry drivers," said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao in a statement.
The federal exemption permits operation of the vehicle without three features: side mirrors, windshield and a reversing camera that switches off when driving forward. This exception differs from the one that GM is currently pursuing for its self-driving Cruise unit. This non-low speed vehicle has a much longer list of exceptions.
The process was tedious even for these three exceptions. Nuro has been working with NHTSA for three years and applied for a special permit in October 2018.
"What you have to prove is that even if the exemption is granted, the vehicle is at least as safe as other vehicles that are fully compliant," said David Estrada, Nuro's chief policy and legal officer.
The new R2 delivery model has a narrower vehicle profile and rounded contours where the side mirrors would otherwise be placed. This design feature creates additional space for cyclists and other "vulnerable road users," said Nuro.
The R2 is equipped with lidar, radar and cameras to give the “driver” a 360-degree view of his surroundings. However, this requires further liberation, said Estrada. The NHTSA exemption also allows the R2 to operate its rear view cameras while moving forward. New passenger cars must have a rear view camera that turns off as soon as the driver moves forward (to avoid distraction). Without a person on board, these concerns are controversial, Nuro argued.
There are conditions for this exemption. Nuro has the exemption for two years under certain conditions and must submit reports on the AV driving system and notify communities where the R2 is used in good time. The exemption enables Nuro to not produce and use more than 5,000 R2 vehicles during the two-year exemption.
The R2, which was developed and built in the U.S. in collaboration with Roush Enterprises, Michigan, has a more robust special-purpose vehicle body than its predecessor and a front section to protect pedestrians, which absorbs energy and can collapse inside to keep the vehicles outside USA better protect the vehicle, according to the company.
The vehicle also features redesigned doors and a larger exterior wall that customers can use to interact with the vehicle and unlock the storage compartments. It also has 65% more capacity than the R1 and its compartments have temperature controls to keep perishable goods, including food or meals, fresh.