For autonomous vehicle (AV) and related technology companies, 2020 might be remembered primarily as the year of the Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) given the number of companies, including Luminar Technologies, Nikola Corporation, Canoo Holdings and Velodyne Lidar, that utilized these so-called blank-check companies to go public. However, amidst the feverish pace of SPACs and M&A activity, one announcement made in the waning days of 2020 might have been overshadowed: on December 23, 2020, Nuro became the first company to be issued the Autonomous Vehicle Deployment Permit (Deployment Permit).

As California DMV Director Steve Gordon acknowledged, “[i]ssuing the first Deployment Permit is a significant milestone in the evolution of autonomous vehicles in California” because, by receiving it, Nuro is now the only company in the state allowed to commercialize services performed by driverless vehicles. Significantly, the Deployment Permit drops “Testing” from the name, explicitly signaling that vehicles operating under it are no longer considered to be in the testing phase and can be “deployed” for commercial purposes. Nuro had already obtained the permits required for testing autonomous vehicles on public roads in California both with a safety driver (Autonomous Vehicle Testing Permit, or Safety Driver Permit) and without one (Autonomous Vehicle Driverless Testing Permit, or Driverless Permit), in 2017 and April 2020, respectively. However, the company had to overcome another set of hurdles in order to be approved for the Deployment Permit, which is the final stage in the DMV’s permitting process for deploying autonomous vehicles on public roads.

This article provides a brief overview of the key differences between the three permits and highlights the additional requirements companies must meet in order to obtain the Deployment Permit.   

Overview of the Safety Driver, Driverless and Deployment Permits

An applicant for a Safety Driver Permit must declare that the autonomous vehicle has, among other things, a system that indicates when the autonomy technology is engaged and when an autonomous technology failure is detected, an easily accessible mechanism that enables users to engage and disengage the autonomous technology, and alternative mechanisms through which the safety driver can take control (OL 311(4)-(6); CA. Veh. Code 38750(c)(1)). The requirements otherwise primarily address certain criteria that the safety driver must meet. As of November 30, 2020, there are 58 Safety Driver permit holders in California.

In contrast, an applicant for a Driverless Permit, which naturally focuses more on the capabilities of the autonomous technology, must confirm, among other things, that both the vehicle and passengers have a communication link with the remote operator, if any, to provide information on the vehicle’s location and status (CCR 228.06(b)(1)). As of October 15, 2020, there are only five Driverless Permit holders.

Applicants for the Deployment Permit must meet design requirements that further build upon this focus on safety.

Additional Requirements in the Deployment Permit

Vehicle Design Features

  • The vehicle must use autonomous technology designed to detect and respond to road conditions in conformity with the California Vehicle Code (CCR 228.06(a)(9)), i.e., the vehicle must be able to conform to the road rules a human driver is required follow under the code.
  • The vehicle must not be operable in autonomous mode outside of the operational design domain (ODD), that is, the boundaries of what the vehicle can and cannot do, including what circumstances under which it can safely perform (CCR 228.06(a)(1)). This essentially means the vehicle must be smart enough to be able to recognize when it is encountering situations under which it is not capable of functioning without driver interference and disengage from autonomous mode (whether this means coming to a stop or requesting that the driver take over). Manufacturers must also provide to the DMV descriptions of the conditions under which the vehicles are designed to be incapable of operating (CCR 228.06(a)(1)), how the vehicle is designed to react when it is outside of its ODD (CCR 228.06(a)(3)), the mechanisms for safely disengaging out of autonomous mode (CCR 228.06(a)(2)), and a description of how the vehicle will come to a complete stop in the event of an autonomous technology failure when the driver does not or is unable to take manual control of the vehicle (CCR 228.06(c)(2)).
  • There is a unique point in light of the newfound popularity of vehicle designs that exclude components traditionally used in (and required for) the dynamic driving task. Examples of these types of designs include Nuro’s R2 delivery vehicle, Zoox’ robotaxi and Cruise’s shuttle, which lack side mirrors, rear/front windshield visibility, pedals and a steering wheel. To be inclusive of these types of vehicle designs, the DMV only requires that the applicant has received an exemption from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to operate the vehicle on public roads notwithstanding the lack of these components (CCR 228.06(b)(3)). Vehicles that have not received an exemption from NHTSA must still comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), e.g., FMVSS No. 111, which requires vehicles to have inside and outside rearview mirrors, and, for qualifying vehicles, display rearview images (i.e., via a screen and rear camera).

Technology Updates

The Deployment Permit also requires vehicles’ autonomous technology to be updated at least once annually and updates relating to location and mapping information used by the autonomous technology for the safe operation of the vehicle within the ODD to made available on a continual basis. Manufacturers must notify vehicle owners regarding updates and provide instructions on how to access the updates (CCR 228.06(a)(9)).

The vehicle must also meet industry standards relating to cybersecurity with respect to defending against, detecting and responding to cyberattacks, unauthorized intrusions or false vehicle control commands (CCR 228.06(a)(10)).

Conclusion

Nuro’s obtainment of the Deployment Permit is even more momentous given the state of current affairs in the United States and beyond due to COVID-19. Although Nuro’s commercial operations are currently limited to the counties of San Mateo and Santa Clara, its achievement of this goal not only signals the beginning of a shift in how we may soon live our everyday lives, but also provides comfort in the increasingly tangible thought of how technology may help us build a more resilient world in the future.

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