By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON, Feb 6 (Reuters) - A U.S. safety regulator said on Thursday it has allowed SoftBank Group-backed autonomous vehicle startup Nuro Inc to temporarily deploy up to 5,000 low-speed electric delivery vehicles without human controls like mirrors and steering wheels.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) approval of a petition by Nuro will allow the privately held robotics company to deploy the "R2," a delivery vehicle designed to have no human occupants and operate exclusively with an automated driving system.
Automakers must currently meet nearly 75 auto safety standards, many of which were written decades ago with the assumption that a licensed driver would be in control of the vehicle.
This is the first time NHTSA is approving a petition to allow the deployment of automated driving systems without meetings all existing U.S. auto safety standards. U.S. lawmakers have spent years trying to overhaul federal laws to speed the deployment of self-driving vehicles.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said for Nuro self-driving delivery vehicles "certain features that the department traditionally required – such as mirrors and windshield for vehicles carrying drivers – no longer make sense."
NHTSA is allowing Nuro to deploy the vehicles during a two-year period as part of a local delivery service for restaurants, grocery stores, and other companies.
The "R2," which Nuro describes as an "electric-powered delivery robot," is designed to make short trips and will be restricted to pre-mapped neighborhood streets. It is about half the width of a regular car, has no steering wheel or seating positions and gull wing cargo doors.
Nuro said Americans "waste a lot of time running errands" and that it envisions "a future where everything comes to you, on-demand, for free."
NHTSA said the R2 includes the same automated driving system in Nuro's prior "R1" vehicle. Because the "R2" is classified as a low-speed neighborhood vehicle, it does not need to meet all safety requirements of traditional vehicles.
Nuro, which was co-founded in 2016 by two former engineers of Google’s self-driving car project, said last year it raised $940 million from SoftBank Group Corp which valued the Silicon Valley-based company at $2.7 billion. The funding by SoftBank came through its $100 billion Vision Fund.
Nuro has worked with Kroger Co since 2018 on a pilot project to deliver groceries autonomously first in Scottsdale, Arizona and then in Houston, Texas. Walmart Inc and Domino's Pizza said last year they would launch pilot delivery projects with Nuro in Houston.
NHTSA is requiring real-time reporting about safety issues, regular meetings with the agency, and community engagement in deployment areas.
Nuro told NHTSA in its October 2018 petition the "R2" vehicles will at all times be monitored by remote human operators who can take over driving control if needed. (Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)