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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

Australia opposes UN report warning Great Barrier Reef is "in danger"

A green sea turtle swimming among the corals at Lady Elliot island, off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Photo: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Great Barrier Reef should be included in a list of World Heritage Sites that are "in danger" from climate change, a United Nations committee said in a report Tuesday.

Yes, but: Australia's government said it will "strongly oppose" the recommendation by UNESCO's World Heritage Committee.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema: Abolishing filibuster would weaken "democracy's guardrails"

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema at the U.S. Capitol building earlier this month. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) defended her opposition to abolishing the 60-vote legislative filibuster in a Washington Post op-ed published Monday night, saying to do so would weaken "democracy's guardrails."

Why it matters: There have been growing calls from Democrats, particularly progressives, to overhaul the rules as the Senate prepares to vote Tuesday on a massive voting rights package. But Sinema writes in her op-ed that if this were to happen "we will lose much more than we gain."

Court blocks California assault weapons ban repeal

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

A federal appeals court on Monday blocked a judge's ruling that overturned California's 30-year assault weapons ban.

Driving the news: U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez ruled earlier this month that the ban was unconstitutional and likened the AR-15 to a Swiss Army knife, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has now granted a stay, pending appeal.