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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.

Go deeper

House passes $1.9 trillion COVID relief package

Photo: Screenshot via C-SPAN

The House approved President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID relief package on a 219-212 vote early Saturday morning, sending it to the Senate for a possible rewrite before it gets to Biden's desk.

The big picture: The vote was a critical first step for the package, which includes $1,400 cash payments for many Americans, a national vaccination program, ramped-up COVID testing and contact tracing, state and local funding and money to help schools reopen.

8 hours ago - Health

Biden says it's "not the time to relax" after touring vaccination site

President Biden speaking after visiting a FEMA Covid-19 vaccination facility in Houston on Feb. 26. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden said Friday that "it's not the time to relax" coronavirus mitigation efforts and warned that the number of cases and hospitalizations could rise again as new variants of the virus emerge.

Why it matters: Biden, who made the remarks after touring a vaccination site in Houston, echoed CDC director Rochelle Walensky, who said earlier on Friday that while the U.S. has seen a recent drop in cases and hospitalizations, "these declines follow the highest peak we have experienced in the pandemic."

Updated 8 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: Most COVID-19 survivors can weather risk of reinfection, study says — "Twindemic" averted as flu reports plummet amid coronavirus crisis
  2. Vaccine: FDA advisory panel endorses J&J COVID vaccine for emergency use — About 20% of U.S. adults have received first vaccine dose, White House says — New data reignites the debate over coronavirus vaccine strategy.
  3. Economy: What's really going on with the labor market.
  4. Local: All adult Minnesotans will likely be eligible for COVID-19 vaccine by summer — Another wealthy Florida community receives special access to COVID-19 vaccine.
  5. Sports: Poll weighs impact of athlete vaccination.