Look Ma, no hands and no feet. But first, what does Uncle Sam say?
General Motors has asked the government to approve test fleets of the latest iteration of its autonomous Chevy Bolt, which has no steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedal. Such approval is necessary before any manufacturer can operate fully driverless vehicles for commercial purposes.
GM said in November that it expected to transport people and cargo with self-driving vehicles in big cities sometime in 2019.
Since acquiring Cruise Automation, a San Francisco startup, in spring 2016, GM and Cruise have developed four generations of autonomous Chevrolet Bolt EVs. But the last version has no steering wheel, and no pedals for accelerating or braking. Doors open and close automatically.
Those functions are handled by software, sensors and a laser-guidance technology called LiDAR.
Seven states, including Michigan, allow such vehicles to be tested with federal approval. The other six are North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, Colorado and Nevada.
But before a vehicle can transport people, it must meet a battery of standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The legal problem is that those standards require compliance through tests with a human driver as well as manual steering, acceleration and braking controls.
Leading this journey through the regulatory process is Paul Hemmersbaugh, former NHTSA general counsel who resigned from the agency a year ago to join GM as chief counsel and policy director for transportation as a service.
"We are asking NHTSA to give us permission to meet the safety standards through a different approach because we can’t achieve them now without a human driver or steering wheel," said Hemmersbaugh. "When you don’t have a steering wheel it makes no sense to talk about an air bag in the steering wheel."
But here's another challenge: NHTSA has had no chief since former administrator Mark Rosekind left in November 2016. In April he was hired by Zoox, a San Francisco autonomous technology firm, as chief safety innovation officer.
For the last year, Jack Danielson, a career civil servant and fourth in the agency's chain of command, has run NHTSA. Many key vacancies, including permanent chief counsel, director for government affairs and chief financial officer have not been filled.
It is unclear how that will impact the review of requests such as GM said Thursday it has presented.
Elaine Chao, U.S. transportation secretary who oversees NHTSA, will speak Sunday in the opening session of the Detroit Auto Show at Cobo Center.
Contact Greg Gardner: (313) 222-8848 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregGardner12
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