Two DOT requests for public comments reflect attempts to do away with driver controls

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The U.S. Department of Transportation (“DOT”) has requested public comment on two petitions to exempt driverless vehicles from certain safety standards, one from General Motors, and another from lesser known Nuro, Inc. Petitions to the Department of Transportation are requests by the public to have Federal Regulations changed or exemptions from them granted. These petitions seek temporary exemptions. What is notable about these petitions is that both are requesting exemptions to be able to move farther away from the traditional notion of a motor vehicle, and closer to the futuristic notion of “mobility pods” with no driver controls.

Nuro, Inc.’s petition seeks exemptions from regulations to be able to deploy autonomous cargo delivery vehicles that do not carry human passengers. A visit to its website reveals video footage of its robot on wheels that looks like an iMac circa 2000 swallowed a golf cart. Nuro’s petition seeks exemptions for its “R2X Low-Speed Automated Delivery Robot” from the requirements that motor vehicles have seats, seatbelts, mirrors inside and out, and windshield standards.

General Motors’ petition seeks exemption from regulations so that it can put into service vehicles with no steering wheel, gear selector, or foot pedals. General Motors’ petition is only with respect to what it describes as Zero Emission Autonomous Vehicles or “ZEAVs.” It has indicated in its petition that the vehicles would be used exclusively for a ridesharing program, that would be geo-restricted, speed limited, and have weather limitations. That said, General Motors indicates it will gradually relax the self-imposed limitations on speed and weather as time progresses.

While General Motors was the earliest of the large automakers to invest in Lyft, this is not a petition that includes the ride sharing service. Lyft is not wedded to General Motors, despite the seat GM holds on its Board. In fact, Lyft has taken substantial investments from Ford Motor Co. and Google’s parent company Alphabet, Inc. Lyft’s most prominent partner may end up being General Motors’ oldest rival, as Lyft announced this past September it would be deploying Ford self-driving vehicles into its fleet in 2021. So expect General Motors’ ride-sharing service to have distinct branding. Whether the vehicles will be branded “Cruise,” as the current San Francisco test fleet, and the name of the independent company General Motors acquired, remains to be seen. The vehicles will also not appear to be as futuristic looking as Nuro’s robot. The petition reveals they will be specially modified Chevrolet Bolts.

The DOT has authority to grant exemptions from a Federal Motor Vehicles Safety Standard or bumper standard pursuant to 49 U.S.C. 30113. The National Highway Transportation Safety Agency is charged with considering exemption petitions. General Motors seeks its exemptions pursuant to two specific statutory provisions. One provision allows for exemptions for the testing of low emission vehicles, and the other for the development of technologies that are at least equal in safety to the standards currently in place. Nuro seeks its exemptions pursuant to the provision for low emission vehicles.

While one can never be certain on the outcome of any type of regulatory process, given the statutory basis for the exemptions, and the current regulatory climate, these petitions may end up being well received.