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Here’s what’s next for a self-driving car startup that’s poised to make history

February 27, 2020, 8:00 PM UTC

Houston residents are about to get home delivery that doesn’t require tipping the driver—because there isn’t one.

Startup Nuro, which has been testing autonomous delivery vehicles in the city for the past two years—albeit with safety drivers on board—has begun to build new, fully robotic models that don’t even have a driver’s seat, much less steering wheels or pedals to deliver pizza, groceries, and other goods. It plans to begin rolling out the new R2 robotic vehicles in the city in the next few months.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently granted Nuro the first permit for a self-driving car that can operate in any state without a safety driver. The first 5,000 of R2s are already being built by Roush, a contract manufacturer based in Farmington, Mich.

For now, these cars will only operate in Houston, replacing older self-driving Priuses with safety drivers that operated in a test program. With the new approval, the driverless R2s will be able to operate commercially anywhere in the country, without special local permits.

The “cars” will serve as delivery shuttles in partnership with Kroger grocery stores, Walmart, and Domino’s Pizza, says David Estrada, the company’s head of policy and legal affairs. Slog through traffic on your way home after a long day, find the cupboard bare, and you can go on Dominos’ website to order a pizza, and this automated delivery car will show up in front of your house within a half hour.

The system sends your phone a text with a code that you can use on the touch screen on the side of the vehicle to open one of the bay doors to a heated compartment where orders are kept (Ice cream from Kroger or Walmart will come in a cooled compartment). If there’s something you forgot to order, Nuro has patented an access system that will let customers buy add-ons, such as soda or garlic sticks that come in a separate compartment, once the new R2s go into service.

Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city, has some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion and one of the highest rates of vehicle fatalities. Estrada says he hopes the cars will eventually help reduce congestion in the city.

Remote safety “drivers” will still monitor the cars from afar and, in theory, take control when necessary. If the R2 violates traffic laws or has another problem, police can also interact with it through a touch screen.

Any stores filling customer orderswill have to be nearby though, because Nuro’s R2 vehicles are limited to traveling at 25 mph as part of its agreement with regulators. The government required a low speed limit as a safety precaution.

The first exemption from federal motor vehicle safety standards for a commercial vehicle is a big step for the NHTSA. Companies such as Uber, Tesla, Alphabet, and GM have been pushing NTHSA to revise some of the 75 different federal motor vehicle safety standards that the agency imposes, many of which came into existence decades ago and haven’t been updated since.

Nuro only needed exemptions from three of the requirements—a windshield, side mirrors, and a reverse camera that shuts off when the car moves forward—to put the R2s into commercial service. Since the completely robotic cars “see” through conventional and thermal cameras, radar, and lidar (like radars that use light), they don’t need a windshield or mirrors for drivers. In an accident, additional protrusions like mirrors could increase the danger to pedestrians, Estrada says. And why shut off a rearview camera at all if there’s no driver to be distracted by the view?

“If we were forced to comply [with those rules],” Estrada said, “it would compromise safety and not be useful.”

NHTSA Administrator Elaine Chao issued a statement about the exemption, saying those regulations “made no sense” in an era of self-driving cars.

To keep other cars from crashing into it, the R2 uses the same types of head and taillights and turn signals as normal cars.

Until now, governments have required safety drivers for autonomous vehicles as a precaution—a system that famously failed when a distracted driver failed to take over before an Uber autonomous vehicle hit a pedestrian in Arizona, in 2018.

To make up for whatever safety may be perceived to be lost by not having a safety driver, the R2 is classified as a Low Speed Vehicle, a construct NHTSA approved in the late 1990s for operating specially-equipped golf carts in gated communities. Under federal law, the cars can travel on any roads with a speed limit up to 35 mph, although some states and cities limit them to even slower roads.

At half the width and slightly less length than a Smart car, the R2 is also unlikely to cause a lot of damage if one did hit anything.

For now, Nuro has no plans to expand beyond Houston, Estrada says. “We and others have spent a lot of time developing [the self-driving] technology,” he says. Now the focus is on getting to customers’ homes on time and listening to customer feedback, before scaling the service to other cities.

The next step for the company will come after NHTSA implements another expected round of streamlining of its regulations to let Nuro and other companies operate autonomous vehicles at full speed, Estrada says. Any regulations designed only to protect vehicle occupants, such as seat belts for example, are irrelevant to driverless delivery vehicles.

Corporations aren’t the only ones interested in benefitting from driverless technology. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told transportation efficiency advocates at the Los Angeles Auto Show in 2015 that he’s counting on autonomous taxis to double or triple taxi ridership by lowering ride prices by 70% compared to conventional taxis. Robot taxis, he says, also won’t refuse to shuttle passengers in poorer areas, unlike some human drivers who avoid such areas because of limited tips and fear of crime.

Safety advocates are cautiously optimistic about the prospects for driverless cars. “Low-speed autonomous vehicles like the Nuro could help us learn more about how to safely implement autonomy in vehicles that can carry passengers in the future,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Although the timeline to have consumer-level autonomous vehicles is going to be long, we are seeing crash reductions today for many of the collision prevention systems available on new vehicles, which are the building blocks for full autonomy.”

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