Earlier this month, Nuro made automotive history when it became the first company to obtain a NHTSA exemption for a driverless vehicle, the R2. Nuro is a self-driving startup created by two former Google engineers. Their earlier version, the R1, is a small electric ‘van’ without a steering wheel or pedals and  designed exclusively for delivery of goods rather than people.

Nuro has been testing the R1 vehicle on public roads in places like Scottsdale, AZ for several years. This vehicle is technically classified by federal regulations as a low speed vehicle (LSV) meaning it has a maximum speed of 25 mph and maximum weight of 3,000 lbs. As a low-speed vehicle, the R1 did not need to satisfy all of the FMVSS requirements for passenger cars and trucks (i.e. standards relating seatbelts, airbags, and steering). But it must still satisfy the minimum requirements of FMVSS 500 including front lights, rear view mirrors, and windshields. Therefore, since 2018, the Nuro R1 has been equipped with these safety features, despite having no human present in the vehicle. For its new R2 vehicles, Nuro requested three exemptions for their driverless delivery vehicle:

1) Removal of external/internal mirrors

2) Waiver of the front windshield glazing requirements (intended for occupant safety)

3) Waiver of the rear camera ‘linger’ requirements (intended to avoid driver distraction)

These three practical exemption requests  presented an ideal test case for NHTSA’s first substantive evaluation of an autonomous vehicle. Though it may come as a surprise to some, there are currently no federal regulations for automated driving systems. As NHTSA stated in the Nuro ruling, the agency had no legal basis “to impose additional FMVSS requirements on the R2X, either as a pre-condition of granting an exemption or as a term for maintaining an exemption grant.”

NHTSA’s task was evaluating the relative safety of the exempt vehicle compared to the compliant version that Nuro had already been testing. Because the new R2X would use the same automated driving systems, “which would rely on the same sensors and would perform the same classifying, decision making and executing functions” as the R1, NHTSA concluded there was “no meaningful difference in the safety impact” of the autonomous driving systems between the two vehicles.

In fact, NHTSA determined the exempt vehicle was safer because the side mirrors would not risk clipping pedestrians or cyclists. Further, the windshield would no longer be a risk of shattering in a crash.

But despite finding that the Nuro R2 may be safer than the R1, NHTSA mandated new reporting requirements for Nuro.

Specifically, regular reports will be required every 90 days that include the following information:

  • total vehicle miles traveled
  • heat maps of the geofenced area where the vehicles operate
  • descriptions of material changes made to the R2X’s ODD

Thus, in granting Nuro’s exemption, NHTSA simultaneously added a new layer of regulatory oversight. And, notably, the reporting categories go beyond the “discrete aspects of vehicle performance affected by individual exemptions.” This means Nuro, by virtue of its exemption for the R2, is now subject to its own unique federal monitoring program.

On the other hand, NHTSA argues that the new reporting requirements are in the public interest. The information gathered will assist  the agency in learning about the benefits of automated technology. Given NHTSA’s leadership and commitment to safety surrounding AVs, there motive is understandable. However, for other AV companies that are understandably protective of their data relating to testing and deployment, the additional oversight that comes with exemptions could discourage requests. For example, a company that uses a standard vehicle platform for their autonomous vehicle testing and deployment may be deterred from seeking exemptions for minor vehicle changes. After all, why go through the hassle if NHTSA will turn around and mandate new reporting requirements that otherwise would not apply?

On the whole,  NHTSA’s exemption for Nuro’s new delivery vehicle is a positive step for the future of autonomous vehicles. The exemption will allow Nuro to build and deploy up to 5,000 of its electric delivery vehicles over the next two years. However, NHTSA’s added layer of reporting requirements in exchange for granting the exemptions may be a step backwards.

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