Sep 11, 2019 - Technology

Imported self-driving shuttles have an edge over their U.S. rivals

Photo of a car with a boot on the tire that's got the American flag printed on it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The road to growth for an American driverless shuttle maker is being blocked by regulatory processes that put domestic startups at a disadvantage to foreign rivals.

The big picture: Absent a broad government policy on self-driving cars, most companies must find a way around federal motor vehicle safety standards to test or deploy their autonomous vehicles on public roads.

Another type of AV — those boxy 8- or 10-passenger driverless shuttles — falls through the cracks, however, and the only domestic producer, Local Motors, is paying the price.

  • Two of Local Motors' competitors — EasyMile and Navya — import their vehicles from France and are able to get exemptions for R&D purposes.
  • Local Motors is petitioning the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, complaining that "smaller, innovative American vehicle manufacturers" like themselves are at a disadvantage, hindering competitiveness and endangering American leadership in autonomy and new technology development.
  • "American companies creating American jobs building American cars have a higher bar to get vehicles on the road for purposes of research and testing than foreign companies importing vehicles," David Woessner, head of regulatory affairs for Local Motors, tells Axios.
  • "The technology is moving faster than the regulatory environment can keep up with," adds Randell Iwasaki, executive director of Contra Costa Transportation Authority, which is trying to deploy both U.S. and foreign-made shuttles on public roads.

Yes, but: Local Motors is a small company with huge ambitions and it's not clear it could deliver even if it received the necessary exemptions.

  • Besides reinventing future mobility, it also wants to disrupt traditional auto manufacturing by 3D-printing its Olli shuttles.
  • So far, it has produced just 20 demonstration vehicles, only a handful of which were 3D-printed.
  • It recently partnered with Robotic Research, which has boosted its credibility.

The intrigue: Foreign players are beginning to worry they'll be locked out in the U.S., which is why Easy Mile is exploring partnerships to put its technology on U.S.-built buses and why Navya opened a facility in Michigan.

What to watch: Two things could change the landscape for both domestic and imported shuttle operators.

  1. The DOT is close to awarding $60 million in federal grants for AV demonstration projects, with preference given to those deploying U.S.-built vehicles, in keeping with President Trump's 2017 executive order for government agencies to "buy American."
  2. NHTSA is moving to plug the loophole by creating a new rule that would allow domestic manufacturers to also request exemptions for R&D purposes, but it's likely to take a year or longer.

Go deeper: Bad trade policy could cost U.S. its autonomous vehicles lead

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