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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The road to growth for an American driverless shuttle maker is being blocked by regulatory processes that put domestic startups at a disadvantage to foreign rivals.

The big picture: Absent a broad government policy on self-driving cars, most companies must find a way around federal motor vehicle safety standards to test or deploy their autonomous vehicles on public roads.

Another type of AV — those boxy 8- or 10-passenger driverless shuttles — falls through the cracks, however, and the only domestic producer, Local Motors, is paying the price.

  • Two of Local Motors' competitors — EasyMile and Navya — import their vehicles from France and are able to get exemptions for R&D purposes.
  • Local Motors is petitioning the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, complaining that "smaller, innovative American vehicle manufacturers" like themselves are at a disadvantage, hindering competitiveness and endangering American leadership in autonomy and new technology development.
  • "American companies creating American jobs building American cars have a higher bar to get vehicles on the road for purposes of research and testing than foreign companies importing vehicles," David Woessner, head of regulatory affairs for Local Motors, tells Axios.
  • "The technology is moving faster than the regulatory environment can keep up with," adds Randell Iwasaki, executive director of Contra Costa Transportation Authority, which is trying to deploy both U.S. and foreign-made shuttles on public roads.

Yes, but: Local Motors is a small company with huge ambitions and it's not clear it could deliver even if it received the necessary exemptions.

  • Besides reinventing future mobility, it also wants to disrupt traditional auto manufacturing by 3D-printing its Olli shuttles.
  • So far, it has produced just 20 demonstration vehicles, only a handful of which were 3D-printed.
  • It recently partnered with Robotic Research, which has boosted its credibility.

The intrigue: Foreign players are beginning to worry they'll be locked out in the U.S., which is why Easy Mile is exploring partnerships to put its technology on U.S.-built buses and why Navya opened a facility in Michigan.

What to watch: Two things could change the landscape for both domestic and imported shuttle operators.

  1. The DOT is close to awarding $60 million in federal grants for AV demonstration projects, with preference given to those deploying U.S.-built vehicles, in keeping with President Trump's 2017 executive order for government agencies to "buy American."
  2. NHTSA is moving to plug the loophole by creating a new rule that would allow domestic manufacturers to also request exemptions for R&D purposes, but it's likely to take a year or longer.

Go deeper: Bad trade policy could cost U.S. its autonomous vehicles lead

Go deeper

Trump revokes ethics order barring former aides from lobbying

Photo: Spencer Platt via Getty

Shortly after pardoning members of Congress and lobbyists convicted on corruption charges, President Trump revoked an executive order barring former officials from lobbying for five years after leaving his administration.

Why it matters: The order, which was signed eight days after he took office, was an attempt to fulfill his campaign promise to “drain the swamp.”

  • But with less than 12 hours left in office, Trump has now removed those limitations on his own aides.

Trump pardons former fundraiser Elliott Broidy

President Trump has pardoned Elliott Broidy, a former top Republican fundraiser who pleaded guilty late last year to conspiring to violate foreign lobbying laws as part of a campaign to sway the administration on behalf of Chinese and Malaysian interests.

Why it matters: Broidy was a deputy finance chair for the Republican National Committee early in Trump’s presidency, and attempted to leverage his influence in the Trump administration on behalf of his clients. The president's decision to pardon Broidy represents one last favor for a prominent political ally.

Trump grants flurry of last-minute pardons

Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

President Trump issued 73 pardons and commuted the sentences of 70 individuals, hours from leaving office early Wednesday, hours from leaving office.

Why it matters: It's a last-minute gift to some of the president's loyalists and an evident use of executive power with only hours left of his presidency. Axios reported in December that Trump planned to grant pardons to "every person who ever talked to me."