Nuro, an autonomous delivery company that raised $940 million in February 2019, unveiled its second-generation vehicle today. The Nuro R2 was 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.
The R2 was built to operate exclusively as an autonomous vehicle. 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 continue operating 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.
Nuro claimed this is the first time an autonomous vehicle company has received such exemptions.
“Since this is a low-speed self-driving delivery vehicle, certain features that the Department traditionally required — such as mirrors and windshield for vehicles carrying drivers — no longer make sense,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao.
However, there are limits to the exemption granted to Nuro:
- The exemption lasts two years on a conditional basis.
- Nuro must submit reports on the performance of its vehicles.
- Nuro must notify communities where the R2 will be operating.
- Nuro can’t produce and deploy more than 5,000 R2 vehicles during the two-year exemption period.
Nuro was co-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.
“We founded Nuro on the belief that we could reimagine, design, and develop an autonomous vehicle that would make the world a safer place,” said Ferguson, who is now president of the company. “Our second-generation vehicle will advance our goal of transforming local commerce, and we are gratified that the Department of Transportation, under Secretary Chao’s leadership, is promoting public safety and providing regulatory certainty for the self-driving industry.”
“Today’s decision shows that ‘exemption’ can mean more safety,” he added. “Our world-class team solved countless novel problems to create this design and after extensive modeling, research, and testing, created a vehicle unlike any other on the road today.”
Cruise, which recently introduced its new Origin ride-sharing autonomous vehicle, has also applied for exemptions for its self-driving cars. It wants to produce vehicles without steering wheels, but the vehicles will have passengers and travel at speeds above 25 MPH. Cruise is still awaiting the exemption.
Redesigned autonomous delivery vehicle
Like the R1, which will be retired, the Nuro R2 has a top speed of 25 MPH and is designed to deliver groceries, not people. Rather than make the vehicles itself, Nuro partnered with Detroit auto supplier Roush to build the R2.
The Nuro R2 features the same zero-emission propulsion as the previous vehicle, but upgrades include:
- A more durable vehicle body to handle tougher roads and weather
- A 360-degree vision system and new sensor array with both supplier-provided and custom, in-house sensors
- Two-thirds more compartment space without increasing vehicle width
- Temperature control to help keep food fresh
- A custom battery system that nearly doubled the R2 battery capacity, enabling all-day operation
- A front end designed to protect pedestrians, as it will collapse inward in the event of a collision
What’s next for the Nuro R2
Nuro said its autonomous delivery vehicles will begin public road testing in Houston in the “coming weeks” to prepare for their first deliveries to customers’ homes. Nuro has been delivering groceries in Houston for Domino’s, Kroger, and Walmart using a fleet of retrofitted Toyota Priuses.
However, Nuro has also run pilots in Arizona, and the California Department of Motor Vehicles recently approved testing of light-duty autonomous delivery vehicles on its public roads — with our without a human safety driver.
California’s new rules open up testing for autonomous vehicles that weigh less than 10,000 lb. So this includes only Class 1 and 2 vehicles such as passenger cars, midsize pickup trucks, and cargo vans. Any vehicle that weighs more than 10,000 lb. (Class 3-8) is still not permitted, ruling out FedEx or UPS trucks and certainly any semi-trucks.
When it announced these new rules, it said it would approve permits in 30 days or around Jan. 17, 2020. Nuro has previously said it will test its delivery service in California.
So while the Nuro R2 will gets started in Houston, it won’t be long before it shows up elsewhere.