Driverless cars may someday look less like haunted minivans, thanks to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s approval of the zero-occupant food delivery robot R2. It looks like if EVE had a baby with a lunchbox and glides like an electric dream at no more than 40 km/h:
On Thursday, the NHTS decided to waive standard vehicle requirements for R2 maker Nuro, finding that regulations written with driver safety in mind make a low-speed zero-occupant car more dangerous. R2's sibling R1 has roamed the streets before, delivering groceries in Scottsdale, AZ and Domino’s in Houston (tagged along by a chase vehicle, Wired reported).
As Nuro explained to Gizmodo, the R1 already didn’t require steering wheels or pedals under the NHTS’s driverless “low-speed vehicle” rules, but this further does away with redundancies like windshields, in favour of a softer, rounded face that more easily deflects objects and acts as what Nuro describes as a “crumple zone.” The NHTS also waived a regulation that forces the rear camera to turn off when the car is no longer in reverse, which would normally distract a driver, but in this case, is essential for the R2 to see where it’s going. And the R2 gets to shed its unsexy side mirrors, to the aesthete’s delight. NHTS has approved a fleet of 5,000 to run on the road for two years.
The zero-occupant idea, as explained on Nuro’s Medium blog, allowed the company to “accelerate autonomous technology deployment” oriented around pedestrian safety. By ripping out the driver’s seat, steering wheel, stereo, and power windows, it reportedly cuts its width and weight by half and shortens its stopping distance.
This comes after years of pleas from self-driving car manufacturers like GM and Alphabet. In December, Reuters reported that GM was in talks with the NHTS over the release of a driverless car with no steering wheel in favour of eliminating drunk driving. (Google has made the same case.) Alphabet’s Waymo uses relatively standard minivans that have been retrofitted with self-driving tech.
That’s apples and oranges for now; R2 is more of a road-tested cooler than a conventional car. But U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao’s statement on the matter might be music to the ears of the self-driving car czars. “Since this is a low-speed self-driving delivery vehicle,” she said in the statement. “Certain features that the Department traditionally required – such as mirrors and a windshield for vehicles carrying drivers – no longer make sense.”
Rules for passenger-less self-driving delivery cars are coming. Self-driving cars are coming. In the next few weeks, R2 is also coming to citizens of Houston, who can walk around bellowing Star Wars quotes all over the place.