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North Carolina Legalizes Driverless Delivery Vehicles

Following in the footsteps of states like Florida and Nevada, North Carolina now allows "neighborhood occupantless vehicles" to deliver goods to homes. Legislators wanted to get ahead of a growing industry.

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(TNS) — North Carolinians may someday have pizzas or groceries delivered to their homes or businesses by driverless vehicles, under a bill signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper this week.

The bill allows fully autonomous vehicles designed to deliver cargo to operate on public streets and highways in the state. The new law refers to them as "neighborhood occupantless vehicles" and permits their use on roads with a speed limit of 45 mph or less.

It's not clear where and when such vehicles will appear in North Carolina. But Rep. Jason Saine, one of the bill's primary sponsors, says he wanted to make sure driverless vehicles would be legal when companies want to begin introducing them to the state.

"I didn't want our state to be left behind," Saine, a Republican from Lincoln County, said in an interview. "This is just kind of an evolution of how goods and services are being delivered to us at our homes and our businesses."

Saine said he introduced the bill at the request of lobbyists for Nuro, a California company that makes driverless delivery vehicles. Nuro's R2 robot on wheels can carry more than 400 pounds of cargo (but no people) along pre-programmed routes, and uses cameras and sensors to avoid pedestrians, pets, cars and other objects that might get in its way.

Domino's Pizza began using the R2 to deliver pies in some neighborhoods of Houston earlier this year. Nuro also has vehicles on the road in Arizona and California but won't say when they might arrive in North Carolina.

"While we do not have any specifics to share at this time about when Nuro vehicles will be on North Carolina roads, we are excited about the positive momentum the state is seeing towards bringing the benefits of zero-occupant autonomous delivery to North Carolinians," Mike Blank, the company's head of regional policy, wrote in an email.

OTHER STATES PASS SIMILAR BILLS


Blank said several states, including Florida and Nevada, passed bills similar to North Carolina's this year. Allowing the vehicles on the road is a necessary first step to introducing the technology, he said.

"We believe autonomous vehicles can help dramatically improve safety, create new jobs and bring goods to people's homes affordably and conveniently," he wrote. "Our long-term goal is to bring autonomous delivery services to as many people as possible and help them realize the benefits of robotics in their everyday lives."

North Carolina legislators passed the first autonomous vehicle bill in 2017 that set some basic ground rules for licensing and operating autonomous vehicles that carry people.

The new law applies only to vehicles designed to carry cargo and places few restrictions on their use. Aside from the speed limit, it requires the vehicles to travel as close to the right-hand edge of the road as possible, except when making left turns, and to pull off two-lane highways when five or more cars or trucks have bunched up behind them waiting to pass.

The bill faced little opposition — none in the Senate and only three lawmakers voting against it in the House. Another sponsor, Rep. Robert Reives, a Democrat from Chatham County, said he was convinced the vehicles could operate safely, and apparently other legislators were, too.

"I'd rather have safety than efficiency," Reives said.

Reives said with a handful of startups in the autonomous vehicle business he doesn't expect they will be common anytime soon.

"I would be surprised to see one any sooner than a year from now," he said.

PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE OF TRANSPORTATION


North Carolina has taken other steps to prepare for new transportation technologies. The N.C. Department of Transportation was chosen for a federal program to demonstrate practical uses for drones that has resulted in UPS delivery of lab samples on WakeMed's main campus in Raleigh and drone-maker Flytrex's food deliveries in Fayetteville, Raeford and most recently Holly Springs.

The federal government also named the Triangle Expressway in western Wake County as one of the country's 10 "proving grounds" for autonomous vehicle technology. Volvo and FedEx used the highway, also know as N.C. 540, to test an advanced form of cruise control that allows two or more trucks to communicate with each other and drive closer together in small convoys or "platoons."

NCDOT officials and legislators have said they want to be ready to safely accommodate new technologies and attract companies that are developing them.

House Bill 814, the neighborhood occupantless vehicles act, is another step in that direction, Saine said.

"These types of technologies are going to go where they're treated best," he said. "And so I want to make sure that we at least have the opportunity to compete and so that our state will be looked at for this type of thing."

©2021 The News & Observer, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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