Road to unmanned driving

Texas forms task force geared at autonomous vehicle development

TxDOT has a new task force focused on keeping Texans informed on self-driving vehicles that are getting road ready. Getty Images

Self-driving cars are en route to Texas, and the state government wants to ensure Texas is ready for the ride. The Texas Department of Transportation announced the creation of a Connected and Autonomous Vehicle Task Force on Jan. 24.

The CAV Task Force will focus on being a comprehensive resource for information on all Texas CAV projects, investments, and initiatives, the press release says. The organization will also host events surrounding CAV progress and education around the topic.

"With our world-class universities, top-notch workforce and startup culture, Texas is a national leader in the development of new technologies," says Gov. Greg Abbott in the release. "As transportation technology advances, the CAV Task Force will ensure that the Lone Star State remains at the forefront of innovation."

TxDOT's interest, the release reports, is in hopes that the self-driving technology will minimize accidents and maximize safety, as well as expand opportunities for residents, especially within the elderly and disabled populations who currently don't have reliable transportation to their errands and appointments.

In 2017, in the 85th Texas Legislative Session, Abbot signed Senate Bill 2205 into law. The legislation identifies key requirements for CAVs, such as insurance and adhering to traffic laws, like normal vehicles, as well as requiring video recording devices in the car, the Texas Tribune reported. However, it's worth nothing that self-driving vehicles were already being experimented with in Austin by the likes of Google, the Tribune notes.

"Our goal is to further build on the momentum already established with the Texas Technology Task Force and the Texas Innovation Alliance, and work with interested parties on the latest and greatest in CAV projects and enhancements," says TxDOT Executive Director James Bass. "We look forward to furthering these important efforts as connected and autonomous vehicles become reality."

TxDOT is also focusing on rail planning, as the Houston-Dallas high-speed rail chugs along. Earlier this month, the state asked for Texans' feedback on the projects.

Nuro is now able to roll out its new model of self-driving vehicles in Houston thanks to a recent announcement from the government. Photo courtesy of Nuro

A California-based tech company has got the green light today to move forward a new line of autonomous vehicles that will soon hit Houston streets.

Nuro, which has a few self-driving delivery pilot programs across Houston, has been granted its exemption petition from the United States Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This move is a first for DOT, and it allows Nuro to roll out its vehicles on public roads without the features of traditional, passenger-carrying vehicles — like side mirrors or windshields, for instance.

"Since this is a low-speed self-driving delivery vehicle, certain features that the Department traditionally required – such as mirrors and windshield for vehicles carrying drivers – no longer make sense," says U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao in a news release.

Now, with this permission, Nuro has unveiled its newest model — the R2. The new model is more narrow than the R1, and has 65 percent more climate-controlled space for its food deliveries. The vehicle also has new safety features, like 360-degree vision using lidar, radar, and cameras and even has a pedestrian-protecting feature that enables the car to collapse on impact.

Image courtesy of Nuro

"We founded Nuro on the belief that we could reimagine, design, and develop an autonomous vehicle that would make the world a safer place," says Nuro co-founder and president, Dave Ferguson, in a release. "Our second-generation vehicle will advance our goal of transforming local commerce, and we are gratified that the Department of Transportation, under Secretary Chao's leadership, is promoting public safety and providing regulatory certainty for the self-driving industry."

The R2 models are being assembled in the U.S. with Nuro's partner, Roush Enterprises, which is based in Michigan. Per the NHTSA announcement, Nuro can deploy up to 5,000 R2 vehicles during the two-year exemption period. According to the DOT release, the organization will be monitoring Nuro's work throughout those two years.

"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," says NHTSA Acting Administrator James Owens in the release. "As always, we will not hesitate to use defect authority to protect public safety as necessary."

Nuro currently has three pilot programs — all of which were announced last year. The company is working with Domino's, Kroger, and Walmart on food and grocery deliveries in six Houston ZIP codes. Since entering the Houston market, Nuro has been using its fleet of self-driving Prius vehicles to research and map the city's roads.

With this permission granted from DOT, Nuro can start making deliveries using its R2 fleet with its three retail and restaurant partners.

"Today's decision shows that 'exemption' can mean more safety," says Ferguson. "Our world-class team solved countless novel problems to create this design, and, after extensive modeling, research, and testing, created a vehicle unlike any other on the road today."

Photo courtesy of Nuro