I have three kids under the age of 7. So my wife and I are being extra careful during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes not going to the grocery store. We haven’t been in about a month. The store offers a delivery service, thankfully, but wait times are already two weeks out. Who knew grocery delivery was so exciting, but we wave enthusiastically through the window to the delivery driver as our groceries are placed on the front porch.
Next comes the fun (or crazy) part. I then go out and use wipes to sanitize the food packaging before bringing the groceries into the house. Scientific experts have different opinions on whether this is necessary, but we don’t know who the delivery driver has been in contact with, so why take the chance?
The novel coronavirus has highlighted the need for contactless delivery services. And autonomous delivery startup Nuro is one step closer to making that a reality. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company has been granted permission to test its driverless vehicles on the streets of California.
Nuro, which raised $940 million from the SoftBank Vision Fund in 2019, is allowed to test two of its low-speed, electric R2 autonomous vehicles in parts of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. The permit allows the Nuro R2 vehicles to operate at a maximum speed of 25 MPH, only in fair weather conditions, and on streets with a speed limit of no more than 35 MPH. The permit covers nine cities:
- East Palo Alto
- Los Altos Hills
- Los Altos
- Menlo Park
- Mountain View
- Palo Alto
The permit grants Nuro permission to conduct deliveries from its local retail partners. This won’t start right away, however, due to stay-at-home orders issued by California Governor Gavin Newsom. In the meantime, Nuro will engage in logistical planning for its future operations. “Our hope is that residents of neighboring cities and counties will see R2 on the road soon,” said Nuro’s Chief Legal and Policy Officer David Estrada.
In December 2019, California approved testing of light-duty autonomous delivery vehicles on its public roads. The new rule opens up testing for autonomous vehicles that weigh less than 10,000 pounds. So this includes only Class 1 and 2 vehicles such as passenger cars, mid-sized pickup trucks and cargo vans.
Nuro’s Head of Robot Operations, Andrew Clare, is keynoting RoboBusiness 2020. Clare’s keynote will explore some of the non-passenger applications of autonomy, discussing robot operations, and how Nuro is tackling the challenges associated with designing vehicles and putting forth a consumer-facing service.
Nuro joins Waymo in exclusive club
Nuro wrote on its blog that this is the “first permit ever granted by the State of California to test a self-driving vehicle on public roads that is not only driverless, but also passengerless.”
There are currently 65 companies with an active permit to test autonomous vehicles with a human safety driver in California. Nuro has had permission to test in California with safety drivers since 2017. However, Nuro and Waymo are now the only two companies allowed to operate driverless vehicles on California’s public roads.
The Nuro R2 was recently granted an exemption by the U.S. Department of Transportation, allowing it to be tested on public roads without certain features of traditional, passenger-carrying vehicles. It lacks side mirrors, rear visibility, and a windshield that can be seen through, all of which are required in human-driven vehicles, according to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The exemption also permits the Nuro R2 to operate its rearview cameras while moving forward, since the vehicle will never be occupied by a human driver who could be distracted by the rear video display.
“The safety of the motoring public is the DMV’s top priority, and we do not give out these permits lightly,” DMV Director Steve Gordon said. “Nuro has met the DMV’s requirements to receive this permit to test their driverless delivery vehicles on California’s public roads.”
Nuro was founded in 2016 by Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu, both former Alphabet engineers who worked on the company’s autonomous vehicle efforts, which have since become Waymo. Nuro has already run pilots in Arizona and Texas, conducting deliveries for partners such as Domino’s, Kroger, and Walmart using a fleet of retrofitted Toyota Priuses.
“We have always believed in the transformative power of autonomous vehicles, and in the climate of COVID-19 we understand their potential even more deeply,” said Estrada. “Putting our driverless R2 delivery vehicles on the road in California will be an important first for our company and the self-driving industry. But it is just a glimmer of what is to come.”