Autonomous vehicles

No brakes, no steering wheel, no driver—US regulator paves way for driverless cars

For the first time, the NHTSA acknowledged that not all cars need steering wheels, brakes, or other manual controls.
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A prototype of a Zoox robotaxi that has no steering wheel. (Zoox)

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What makes a car a car? The answer isn’t a steering wheel, pedals, or other manual driving controls, according to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Earlier this month, the agency updated the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards with the first-ever change dedicated to autonomous vehicles. The new rules should make it legal to build and deploy AVs without the traditional controls that are associated with a human driver—though there is some fine print involved.

What’s different now: “The occupant protection standards are currently written for traditionally designed vehicles and use terms such as ‘driver’s seat’ and ‘steering wheel’ that are not meaningful to vehicle designs that, for example, lack a steering wheel or other driver controls,” the NHTSA rule states.

  • The new rule essentially updates that terminology to better reflect potential layouts and designs of future AVs.
  • Automakers may still need to ask the NHTSA for an exemption to sell their autonomous vehicles, Reuters reported.

“It’s a clear indicator that the technology is on the road to commercialization,” Grayson Brulte, co-founder and president of Brulte & Company, an autonomous-mobility consulting firm, told Emerging Tech Brew.

What comes next: We’ll likely see these vehicles offered first in fleet form, Brulte said. He thinks that passengers will see Cruise, ​​the General Motors-backed AV startup, and Zoox, Amazon’s AV subsidiary, take advantage of the new rules first.

  • For autonomous-driving companies, this move not only increases their flexibility in design and manufacturing, but it also signals an official step toward AV adoption.

Brulte estimated we may see these pod-like vehicles rolled out via pilot programs in as soon as 12–24 months, but he warned that global supply-chain struggles could slow things down.

Zoom out: The new standards do not apply to some occupant-less AVs like Nuro’s, which deliver goods rather than people.

The NHTSA “tentatively determined” that a “safety need did not exist” to apply certain existing standards to vehicles without occupants. Most public commenters agreed with that decision, though some said they had concerns about “crash compatibility and other safety matters.”

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