Skip to main content

Waymo asks the government to stop requiring steering wheels for autonomous cars

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Waymo wants a future without steering wheels. The unit of Google parent Alphabet doesn’t believe its self-driving cars need them, and it just asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to “promptly” remove requirements for steering wheels, as well as brake pedals, reports Reuters.

Companies must currently meet 75 safety requirements for self-driving cars, but many of them were written under the assumption that a human driver will still be at the controls, according to Reuters. It’s another important dimension of the push to take self-driving cars mainstream. As the technology develops, regulations will have to evolve with it. Waymo wants to speed up that process.

“NHTSA should move promptly to remove barriers while ensuring safety,” Waymo said in a letter submitted in late August as part of a public comment period on new rules for autonomous cars. The letter also said the NHTSA should prioritize changes to rules that assume a human being is behind the wheel and allow for alternative setups. That will allow the “timely deployment” of vehicles with no manual controls, the letter said.

Waymo has been eager to ditch manual controls for some time. While it currently uses Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans and Jaguar I-Pace crossovers, which retain their factory-installed steering wheels and pedals, Waymo previously used a purpose-built electric car called the Firefly. When the vehicle was unveiled, it was capable of operating without manual controls, Waymo said, although a steering wheel and pedals were added to satisfy regulations.

The NHTSA does not plan to write new rules on seating positions, which will involve changes to crashworthiness standards, until March 2020, according to Reuters. Comments filed by automakers indicate it could take the NHTSA until at least 2025 to rewrite current rules to accommodate self-driving cars. The agency is also unsure of how to test for safety, Reuters reports. The NHTSA is reportedly considering both simulations and putting external remote controls on cars.

Waymo isn’t the only company pushing for rule changes. In 2018, General Motors published a photo of a car interior with no steering wheel or pedals, indicating this was the goal of its self-driving car program. Prior to that, in January 2017, GM sought a rules exception from the NHTSA to test cars without steering wheels, according to Reuters. GM-owned Cruise recently announced that is pushing back the launch of a commercial ridesharing service using self-driving cars.

Getting rid of steering wheels and pedals would give engineers and designers more freedom. Many recent concept cars have featured living-room-like interiors, with inward-facing seats that allow occupants to more easily converse. Toyota’s e-Palette concept is a box on wheels that takes advantage of the flexibility of not having permanent manual controls. The chief engineer for GM’s self-driving car program recently told Digital Trends that removing steering wheels could help engineers better address there needs of disabled people.

Editors' Recommendations

Stephen Edelstein
Stephen is a freelance automotive journalist covering all things cars. He likes anything with four wheels, from classic cars…
Ford and VW close down Argo AI autonomous car unit
An Argo AI autonomous car on the road.

Autonomous-car specialist Argo AI is closing down after Ford and Volkswagen, Argo's main backers, ended support for the Pittsburgh-based company.

First reported by TechCrunch and later confirmed by the two auto giants, some of the 2,000 workers at Argo will transfer to Ford and Volkswagen, while others without an offer will receive a severance package. Argo’s technology is also set to end up in the possession of the two companies, though at this stage it’s not clear how it might be shared.

Read more
Ex-Apple employee pleads guilty to nabbing Apple Car secrets
The Apple logo is displayed at the Apple Store June 17, 2015 on Fifth Avenue in New York City

A former Apple employee on Monday pled guilty to the theft of trade secrets from the tech firm.

The material stolen by Xiaolang Zhang was linked to Apple’s work on its first-ever automobile, a project that’s been in and out of the headlines for years though never officially confirmed by the company.

Read more
A weird thing just happened with a fleet of autonomous cars
A passenger getting into a Cruise robotaxi.

In what must be one of the weirder stories linked to the development of autonomous vehicles, a fleet of Cruise self-driving cars gathered together at an intersection in San Francisco earlier this week, parked up, and blocked traffic for several hours. And to be clear: No, they weren't supposed to do that.

Some observers may have thought they were witnessing the start of the robot uprising, but the real reason for the mishap was more prosaic: An issue with the platform's software.

Read more