A self-driving delivery vehicle with no driver’s seat, steering wheel or brake pedal has become the first to be cleared by the federal government to operate without the presence of a human.

Nuro Inc., a robotics company based in Mountain View, Calif., has been given permission to put up to 5,000 of its autonomous R2 electric vehicles on the road over a two-year period. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s green-lighting of the company’s petition is a milestone in the effort to win approval to put completely self-driving cars on the road en masse.

“As the first company to be granted approval for a self-driving vehicle exemption, it’s an important moment for Nuro and a milestone for the industry,” Nuro co-founder Dave Ferguson wrote in a blog post Thursday. “This decision provides regulatory certainty for Nuro to operate our second-generation self-driving vehicle, built to carry packages instead of people.”

NHTSA said it will “closely monitor Nuro’s operations” during and after the time period covered by its exemption application. The vehicles are classified as “low-speed,” meaning they can’t go over 25 mph, and will be built for city streets.

“NHTSA is dedicated to facilitating the safe testing and deployment of advanced vehicle technologies, including innovative vehicle designs, which hold great promise for future safety improvements,” Acting NHTSA  Administrator James Owens said in a statement.  “As always, we will not hesitate to use defect authority to protect public safety as necessary.”

Nuro said in its petition that its electric self-driving vehicles would be monitored remotely at all times by “experienced human operators who are extensively trained in the vehicle’s systems” and “would be able to take over driving control” if needed. The vehicles, which are designed to carry cargo, will not have seats.

“With its specially designed size, weight, pedestrian-protecting front end, operating speed, electric propulsion and cautious driving habits, R2 is ready to begin service as a socially responsible neighborhood vehicle that you can trust,” he wrote, adding Nuro plans to soon begin testing the vehicles in Houston.

The R2 is being built by Roush, a Plymouth Township company that also built the prototype of Google’s original self-driving car.

GM seeks approval

General Motors Co. submitted a separate petition in January 2018 that requests permission to operate to 5,000 driverless vehicles as part of a taxi fleet to carry people. NHTSA has not made a decision about the request for those vehicles, which also would operate without steering wheels or control pedals.

GM’s petition to the federal government was submitted nine months before Nuro’s. Because GM wants approval to move people instead of pizzas, it has a higher bar to clear. Approval of GM’s request would represent a major step for the carmaker’s autonomous-vehicle unit Cruise LLC in deploying a driverless-taxi fleet.

A NHTSA spokesman said Thursday there is no update on the status of GM’s application.

Cruise spokesman Ray Wert said Thursday: “NHTSA has been very forward-thinking in their approach, and we continue to have productive conversations.”

Safety challenges

Congress has struggled to update laws to allow more widespread deployment of autonomous fleets. And the Trump administration has resisted calls for mandatory regulations that force automakers to disclose testing data.

Legislation died in 2018 that would have directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to update federal safety standards to ensure that autonomous vehicles match safety levels required for human-operated cars. It would have allowed each automaker to annually sell more than 80,000 self-driving cars without steering wheels or brake pedals; up from the current 2,500 that the government allows carmakers to test.

Consumer safety advocates had urged NHTSA to reject Nuro’s application for exemptions to federal standards that require human operators.

Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit organization that advocates for auto safety, wrote in comments submitted to NHTSA in May that the petition from the Silicon Valley company “fails to sufficiently demonstrate it has addressed the safety concerns that may arise as a result of the requested exemptions.”

Levine said Thursday he is dismayed the request was approved.

“We don’t understand how NHTSA can possibly justify prioritizing this petition over the dozens of actual safety rules and enforcement actions that continue to lay fallow while they plow corporate selected ground,” he said.

Cruise in July delayed the commercial launch of its Cruise AV, a fleet of self-driving cars built off the electric Chevrolet Bolt. The delay was intended to complete more testing.

The most important step in the development of the technology “is to reach a super-human level of safety performance,” and that’s what Cruise is focused mostly on now, Cruise President Dan Ammann told investors on GM’s Capital Markets Day this week.

A fleet of 180 Chevrolet Bolt-based Cruise AVs — built at the GM Lake Orion plant — is being tested on San Francisco streets. In 2019, Cruise drove almost 1 million miles on nearly every road in the city.

In January, Cruise unveiled the Cruise Origin, its new all-electric autonomous ride-sharing shuttle that it developed in partnership with Honda Motor Co. The shuttle will be built at the Detroit-Hamtramck Plant after the plant is retooled.