Nuro's unmanned delivery vehicles are half the width of a Toyota Camry and limited to 25 mph. Photo: Nuro

U.S. transportation officials are considering a new class of motor vehicles — ones with no occupants — in preparation for an expected surge in robot deliveries of everything from groceries to pizza.

Why it matters: Unmanned delivery vehicles are different from self-driving passenger cars, but both require exemptions from federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS) in order to operate on public roads.

  • Carving out a new class for delivery robocars would be a step toward defining standards for future automated vehicles.

Where it stands: DOT is reviewing petitions from 2 companies — GM and Nuro — for exemptions from FMVSS.

  • GM's Cruise subsidiary wants permission to deploy a fleet of robotaxis with no steering wheels or pedals in San Francisco.
  • AV startup Nuro is seeking large-scale deployment of its compact delivery vehicles, currently in pilot phase with Kroger and Domino's.

Of note: A DOT official tells Axios the agency will consider updating the standards on a case-by-case basis, but says a simpler approach could be to create a new motor vehicle class for AVs.

Between the lines: Nuro is the perfect test case.

  • Vehicle safety standards were created with human drivers in mind. But, in Nuro's case, there are no occupants at all — so things like seat belts, backup cameras and mirrors don’t apply.
  • The vehicles are equipped with lidar and camera sensors that provide a 360-degree view.
  • If DOT were to approve an exemption for Nuro's R2X model, it could generate data that would help regulators develop standards for a new class of unmanned delivery vehicles, the DOT official said.

Background: There is a precedent — 20 years ago, as electric golf carts grew popular on subdivision streets, NHTSA created a new motor vehicle class for low speed vehicles.

  • Those low-speed vehicles are now the basis for limited AV passenger shuttles run by companies such as May Mobility and Optimus Ride.

The bottom line: DOT's goal is creating standards that ensure safety but can accommodate new technologies over time.

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