FEB 01, 2018 08:47 AM PST

Driverless Robot Deliveries Launch This Year

WRITTEN BY: Julia Travers

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.

Nuro prototype, credit: Nuro

“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.

What Is the Nuro Prototype Like?

Perhaps one of the most apt descriptions of the Nuro car is a “giant lunchbox on wheels,” Nuro prototype, credit: Nurooffered 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.

When Will We See Nuro Vehicles?

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.

About the Author
  • Julia Travers is a writer, artist and teacher. She frequently covers science, tech and conservation.
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