Nuro's second-generation delivery vehicle, R2. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The U.S. Transportation Department is giving its regulatory blessing to the first autonomous vehicle with no steering wheel, pedals or human occupant.

Why it matters: Vehicle safety standards were written for today's cars and trucks, mostly to protect humans riding inside them. By granting an exemption to Nuro's self-driving delivery vans, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is beginning to pave the way for the driverless era.

The big picture: Congress has yet to pass self-driving legislation and the Department of Transportation has so far issued only voluntary guidelines to companies developing the technology. Absent federal rules, many states permit testing of self-driving cars as long as they comply with existing vehicle safety standards.

What's happening: The exemption announced today allows Nuro to deploy its occupant-free R2 delivery vehicle without some familiar features.

  • “Since this is a low-speed self-driving delivery vehicle, certain features that the department traditionally required – such as mirrors and windshield for vehicles carrying drivers – no longer make sense,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.
  • Instead, Nuro replaced the side and rearview mirrors with cameras and other sensors and rounded the vehicle body to take up less road space, making it safer for others nearby.
  • They also did away with the usual windshield and replaced it with an energy-absorbing front panel to help protect pedestrians and cyclists.
  • Under the federal exemption, Nuro doesn't have to worry about a driver-distraction rule requiring rearview cameras to shut off when the vehicle is moving forward. Instead, those cameras help see 360 degrees around the vehicle.

Yes, but: NHTSA is keeping a tight leash on the company as its deploys the vehicles as part of a delivery service for Kroger, Wal-Mart and Domino's Pizza starting in Houston. Among the conditions:

  • Nuro may deploy no more than 5,000 R2s during the two-year exemption period and must supply the agency with real-time safety data.
  • To ensure transparency, it must also meet regularly with NHTSA and do community outreach in neighborhoods where its vehicles are operating.

What to watch: Nuro said it hopes the testing will help the government write rules for a new category of low-speed self-driving vehicles.

Go deeper

Trump signs bill to prevent government shutdown

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel and President Trump arrives at the U.S. Capitol in March. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

President Trump signed a bill to extend current levels of government funding into early December, White House spokesperson Judd Deere confirmed early Thursday.

Driving the news: The Senate on Tuesday passed the legislation to fund the federal government through Dec. 11, by a vote of 84-10. The move averts a government shutdown before the Nov. 3 election, though funding did expire briefly before the bill was signed.

Editor's note: This is a developing news story. Please check back for updates.

Updated 29 mins ago - Science

In photos: Deadly wildfires devastate California's wine country

The Shady Fire ravages a home as it approaches Santa Rosa in Napa County, California, on Sept. 28. The blaze is part of the massive Glass Fire Complex, which has razed over 51,620 acres at 2% containment. Photo: Samuel Corum/Agence France-Presse/AFP via Getty Images

More than 1700 firefighters are battling 26 major blazes across California, including in the heart of the wine country, where one mega-blaze claimed the lives of three people and forced thousands of others to evacuate this week.

The big picture: More than 8,100 wildfires have burned across a record 39 million-plus acres, killing 29 people and razing almost 7,900 structures in California this year, per Cal Fire. Just like the deadly blazes of 2017, the wine country has become a wildfires epicenter. Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma, and Shasta counties.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 12:30 a.m. ET: 33,880,896 — Total deaths: 1,012,964 — Total recoveries: 23,551,663Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 12:30 a.m. ET: 7,232,823 — Total deaths: 206,887 — Total recoveries: 2,840,688 — Total tests: 103,939,667Map.
  3. Education: School-aged children now make up 10% of all U.S COVID-19 cases.
  4. Health: Moderna says its coronavirus vaccine won't be ready until 2021
  5. Travel: CDC: 3,689 COVID-19 or coronavirus-like cases found on cruise ships in U.S. waters — Airlines begin mass layoffs while clinging to hope for federal aid
  6. Business: Real-time data show economy's rebound slowing but still going.
  7. Sports: Steelers-Titans NFL game delayed after coronavirus outbreak.