US agency approves vehicle designed not to have human driver

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The US government’s highway safety agency has for the first time approved a company’s request to deploy a self-driving vehicle that does not meet federal safety standards for human-driven cars and trucks.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration granted temporary approval for robotics company Nuro to run a low-speed autonomous delivery vehicle, without side and rear-view mirrors and other safety provisions required of vehicles driven by humans.

Also not on the safety feature list are windscreen wipers, steering wheels or brake pedals.

The vehicles were previously subject to federal standards for low-speed vehicles that travel under 25 miles per hour.

Nuro's self-driving vehicle R2
Nuro’s self-driving vehicle R2 (Nuro via AP)

Nuro vehicles can be monitored and controlled remotely by a human operator if needed.

In December, Silicon Valley-based Nuro announced plans to use its low-speed vehicles, called R2, in partnership with Walmart to deliver groceries to customers in Houston.

The service was to start early this year and use the vehicles as well as automated Toyota Prius hybrid cars.

Nuro was also testing deliveries with Kroger in Arizona and Houston.

Under the temporary approval, Nuro will have to make real-time safety reports to the agency.

Nuro will also have to hold regular meetings with the agency and reach out to the community in areas where the vehicles will travel.

“NHTSA is committed to working with industry and key stakeholders to create space for innovation while prioritising safety,” the agency said in a statement.

The agency will use enforcement powers if it finds any evidence of an unreasonable risk to safety, the statement said.

Nuro, of Mountain View, California, announced the R2 on Thursday, the second generation of a vehicle that is custom built to deliver goods, but not people.

A man next to an R2 self-driving vehicle
A man next to an R2 self-driving vehicle (Nuro via AP)

The delivery vehicles, equipped with laser, camera and radar sensors, will travel with regular traffic on public roads.

The exemption from motor vehicle standards from the NHTSA also allows Nuro to run its rear cameras all the time.

Current standards require the camera displays to turn off when the vehicle is moving forward so they do not distract human drivers, the company said.

Nuro said in a statement that the R2 has a front-end that protects pedestrians by collapsing inward.

It is also equipped with temperature controls to keep perishable goods or meals fresh.

The vehicles make kerbside deliveries to humans who can open the storage compartments with a code that is sent to them and unload the goods.

Nuro said the NHTSA’s approval came after three years of work with the agency.

“By replacing heavy passenger vehicles utilised for shopping and other errands, Nuro is ushering in a new era of neighbourhood-friendly and socially responsible zero-occupant vehicles,” the company said in its statement.

Company co-founder and president Dave Ferguson said the NHTSA’s decision “shows that exemption can mean more safety”.

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