Feds move to consider cars with no steering wheels, brakes

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Three days after U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said her department would become “more innovation friendly,” the department took the first steps toward a future that involves cars without steering wheels and brake pedals on public roads.

The Transportation Department on Friday issued a request for comment on a petition from General Motors seeking an exemption from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that assume a human drives a car and requires traditional controls.

GM asked for an exemption in January 2018. For 15 months, the company and others developing self-driving systems have awaited a response as they embark on plans to design and manufacture fully automated vehicles. GM’s petition has been viewed as a litmus test on the Transportation Department’s willingness to pave the way toward a self-driving future.

The public has 60 days to comment on the request, and then the Transportation Department will begin formulating a ruling on the petition.

“The department is actively seeking public comment on proposed exemptions to federal standards and how the public can be protected as new transportation technologies emerge,” Chao said.

Manufacturers can submit petitions to NHTSA, the nation’s top auto safety regulator, to apply for exemptions from federal standards that were developed, in many cases, decades before automated-driving technology was a glint in the eye of engineers. There’s a cap of 2,500 vehicle exemptions per manufacturer, according to the Transportation Department.

GM and its Cruise subsidiary were not the only ones seeking an exemption.

Nuro, an upstart that said last month it had received $940 million in funding from SoftBank’s Vision Fund, has filed a petition for an exemption from safety standards that mandate rearview mirrors, a windshield and a backup camera. Nuro plans to offer delivery services, not transportation for humans, so the company argues those features are unnecessary. The company is testing prototype vehicles in Arizona and Houston.

This week during an appearance at the SXSW arts and technology festival in Austin, Texas, Chao said the Transportation Department needed to welcome transportation innovations.

“The department will remain technology neutral, but be a lot more innovation friendly and will help safe and better transportation options become available more quickly,” she said.

Along those lines, Chao announced the creation of the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council, a body of high-ranking Transportation Department officials that will help accelerate decisions, especially in instances when new technologies — such as automation and hyperloop, for two examples — cut across traditional modes of transportation.

The request for comment may not have emerged from the new council, but taken together, the two developments this week show the Transportation Department taking actions that support its innovation-friendly posture. For its part, GM welcomed Friday’s request for comment.

“General Motors is pleased that NHTSA will post the petition for public comment,” a company spokesman said. “We look forward to continuing to work with NHTSA and other stakeholders as we move through the petition process.”

Nuro could not immediately be reached for comment.

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