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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

Updated 50 mins ago - Sports

IOC: Belarus sprinter who sought refuge in Tokyo "safe"

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya of Belarus in 2019. Photo: Ivan Romano/Getty Images

Belarusian Olympian Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who sought refuge in Tokyo, is in the care of Japanese authorities and the UN refugee agency is now involved in her case, an International Olympic Committee official told reporters Monday.

The latest: Officials in Poland and the Czech Republic have offered to help the 24-year-old sprinter, who refused national team orders to board a flight home after being taken to Tokyo's Haneda airport Sunday following her criticism of Belarusian coaches, per Reuters

Updated 2 hours ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

Italy's Lamont Marcell Jacobs of Team Italy crosses the finish line ahead of American Fred Kerley in the men's 100m final on day nine of the Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, Japan, on Sunday. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

🚨: IOC "looking into" American Raven Saunders' Olympic podium gesture

🏃🏾: Italy's Lamont Marcell Jacobs: Reconnecting with U.S. father "gave me the desire to win" Olympic 100m sprint race.

🥇High jumpers persuade Olympic officials to let them share gold

🏌️‍♂️: Golfer Xander Schauffele wins gold for U.S. by one shot

🤸🏿‍♀️: Simone Biles won't compete in Olympic floor finals, individual vault or uneven bars

🏳️‍⚧️: Axios at the Olympics: Games grapple with trans athletesTrans athletes see the Tokyo Games as a watershed moment

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

Updated 2 hours ago - Sports

IOC "looking into" American Raven Saunders' Olympic podium gesture

Team USA's Raven Saunders gestures on the podium with her silver medal after competing in the women's shot put event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Sunday. Photo: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

The International Olympic Committee is "looking into" U.S. shot-putter Raven Saunders' gesture on the Tokyo Games podium after she won a silver medal, IOC spokesperson Mark Adams told reporters Monday.

Why it matters: Saunders told AP she placed her hands above her head in an "X" formation while on the podium to stand up for "oppressed" people. The IOC has banned protests during the Tokyo Games.