While many companies are surging ahead in the self-driving vehicle industry, aiming to create the first and best car to carry passengers -- but not drivers -- a company called Nuro has decided to focus on driverless delivery vehicles instead. Nuro’s thinner models will only carry goods and will be operated remotely. Nuro’s founders, two ex-Google engineers who worked in its self-driving car division, saw a gap in the automated goods-delivery market that they wanted to fill. They hope their new vehicle, temporarily called the R1 prototype, will stand out in the realm of last-mile delivery, which focuses on the transportation of goods to a final destination.
“We are in chats with potential retail partners around what we can do together and how we can get this out into the world quickly,” Co-founder Dave Ferguson says. He thinks their service can help local stores and service providers to be more competitive, stating, “With a service like this, they suddenly get logistics capability that rivals the biggest players and they can now reach everyone in the community with a service to leverage their existing footprint." Ferguson’s partner is Jiajun "JZ" Zhu, and together they have raised $92 million in funding for the company based in Mountain View, California.
Perhaps one of the most apt descriptions of the Nuro car is a “giant lunchbox on wheels,” offered by Andrew J. Hawkins of The Verge. It is a curved and rectangular battery-powered vehicle with a large arch on its roof, which contains all of its sensing data and looks a bit like a handle – thus the lunch-box comparison. It is also sleek and efficient-looking in its design. Inside the handle is sensing equipment -- LIDAR (laser sensing), radar (electromagnetic wave sensing) and advanced cameras. Nuro robots are designed to move on the roads in suburban or urban environments but not in high-speed or highway settings.
A Nuro vehicle is described in some media reports as being of similar height to a Toyota Highlander – a 68-inch SUV, but about half the width, or about 38 inches wide. This provides the vehicle with a safety buffer; “if you have a vehicle that’s half the width, and you’ve got an extra three or 4 feet of clearance, you can avoid [an accident] ... and you have room to maneuver around [people or vehicles],” says Ferguson. The Nuro models don’t need steering mechanisms, airbags or other passenger-centric equipment, yet can be safer than other self-driving cars because they will always put the well-being of the those around them before the goods they carry. Ferguson says a Nuro delivery bot could run into a tree to avoid a collision. That would be a hard call for a self-driving vehicle to make if it were carrying passengers, and this potential dilemma is one of the principle concerns surrounding their safety.
Nuro is now utilizing six self-driving cars to gather route data for its prototypes to use in a pilot later this year in California, which has been approved by the state DMV. Because driverless car regulations vary widely state-to-state, Nuro will need approval from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to expand and operate in the future.
“We're hoping that this year they are providing a useful service” and “serving real customers,” Ferguson says.
Toyota is also developing a self-driving vehicle to deliver either people or goods called the e-Palette. Amazon is working on both drone and self-driving robot delivery options. Other companies getting into the autonomous-delivery game include Starship Technologies and Udelv.