WASHINGTON - Delivery robot company Nuro won the first federal safety approval for a purpose-built self-driving vehicle, advancing the young company's plans to cart groceries around neighborhoods and marking a milestone for the autonomous vehicle industry.
The approval indicates that federal regulators at the Department of Transportation Department believe specially-built robot cars can safely take to the roads without adhering to all the design standards for regular vehicles.
Nuro says it plans to soon begin testing in Houston.
Many of the existing rules are designed to ensure the person at the wheel can remain safely in control. But Nuro's vehicle, which it calls R2, won't need mirrors or a windshield.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in the context of a self-driving delivery vehicle those features "no longer make sense."
The federal approval also carries strict limits. It's only good for two years, and Nuro's lightweight robots won't carry passengers, won't travel faster than 25 mph, and production will be capped at 5,000 vehicles.
But it indicates that federal regulators, who have been grappling with how to allow the autonomous vehicle industry to continue experimenting without sacrificing public safety, have found a path toward the next generation of vehicles.
The Trump administration has adopted a largely hands-off policy, wary of stifling innovation, but has faced criticism from safety advocates and some lawmakers that it's leaving too much up to industry.
While the full terms of Nuro's approval were not released Thursday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a statement that it comes with conditions to ensure safety. The company will have to share information with regulators in real time, hold regular meetings with officials and engage with communities where it wants to deploy the R2.
The slender robot is much smaller than a regular car, and has large doors that swing upward to reveal its cargo compartment.
Houston customers will be able to place an order for delivery from Kroger or Walmart. A robot will deliver their groceries to a designated spot and the customer will enter a code to unlock the robot to obtain their purchases.
Dave Ferguson, one of Nuro's founders, wrote in a blog post that the R2 is designed to protect pedestrians and programmed to drive courteously, so it's positioned to become a trustworthy and "socially responsible" user of neighborhood roads.
Ferguson wrote that the government, "has shown that safety and innovation can advance together, and that they will act to address regulations that stand in the way."
"Moving forward, we must modernize the existing regulations that never envisioned a vehicle without a driver or occupants, and everyone in the industry must work to ensure self-driving technology is tested and deployed in the safest possible vehicles," he wrote.
Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu, who both previously worked at Google's self-driving car company, founded Nuro in 2016. The company began testing a previous version of its vehicle in Arizona in 2018, doing grocery deliveries for supermarket chain Kroger.
The company says the exemptions from the existing standards have allowed it to design a vehicle that is safer, describing a front panel designed to cause less harm to a pedestrian than a windshield would in a crash.
And while some of the design changes might seem obvious, Nuro says it also got approval to have cameras all around the vehicle turned on all the time. The rules don't typically allow that for fear of distracting a human driver.
There is considerable excitement among government officials and industry leaders about the potential for self-driving vehicles to transform the nation's transportation system. But the practical questions of how to get the vehicles to work have proven tougher than many expected and regulators have grappled with what their role ought to be.
The uncertainty has led some experts to predict that low-speed vehicles like Nuro's, designed for shorter trips around neighborhoods, will be the first to be widely deployed.
Such low-speed vehicles like golf carts and neighborhood buggies already don't have to comply with the full set of car safety standards. That made Nuro's petition to NHTSA more straightforward as the company sought just three exemptions.
But automakers' and tech firms' ultimate ambition is to create a vehicle that would replace the job of today's passenger cars and SUVs.
Last month, Cruise, which is backed by General Motors and Honda, unveiled its proposed design for an autonomous passenger vehicle called the Origin. The company ultimately wants to operate the vehicle as a ride-share service, saying that removing the driver creates more space for passengers and will cut costs.
GM has applied for a safety standards exemption similar to Nuro for a precursor vehicle to the Origin. That application, which is much more complicated, is pending, and a NHTSA spokesman said there was no update on it Thursday.
Dan Ammann, Cruise's chief executive, said in an interview last month that his company is working closely with the federal government.
"They're well aware of what we're up to, unsurprisingly," Ammann said. "Certainly at a conceptual level, and I think deeper down than that, there's a very forward-thinking mind-set and approach in terms of what we're seeing at the federal level."