Founded by two ex-Googlers, autonomous transportation firm Nuro has driven a road less traveled when figuring out how to properly create a vehicle that drives itself. For starters, Nuro isn’t built for passengers – its focus is on deliveries. And deliveries of a special kind: low-speed, short-distance, last-mile runs, which are ideal for things like groceries, dry cleaning and take-out orders.
Instead of taking a consumer vehicle and embedding it with self-driving tech, the Nuro team decided to rebuild the delivery vehicle itself so it was custom-suited to its purpose. It is not exactly the sleekest approach to an automobile – its appearance has been described as a “giant lunchbox on wheels,” or a “mobile toaster.” It doesn’t have a steering wheel or even a driver’s seat, because this car was not designed for a human rider. So it might not be stylish, but it comes loaded with a full sensor array that includes LIDAR, cameras and radars.
To gain enough confidence for public deployment, the firm has received a permit from the California DMV and has been testing its devices on public roads all year.
“We’ve built the full software stack from scratch. There are a lot of components that are shared with general self-driving, and some things that are a bit different,” Co-founder Dave Ferguson told The Verge. “We’ve been able to architect this thing from scratch, geared toward this passenger-less, goods-only transportation.”
The end result is a vehicle about the height of a Toyota Highlander with only half its width – a critical safety feature, Ferguson noted, particularly for vehicles that will have to operate on crowded city streets.
“Even if you have the perfect self-driving vehicle, if someone pops out between two parked cars and it’s within your stopping distance, you can’t prevent that accident,” he said. “Whereas if you have a vehicle that’s half the width, and you’ve got an extra three or four feet of clearance, you can avoid it … and you have room to maneuver around them. You can better design the vehicle to mitigate the severity of any accident.”
That redesign of a vehicle for autonomous delivery has caught a lot of eyes – and netted Nuro a high-profile partnership with grocery giant Kroger early in summer 2018.
The first of those pilots have officially rolled out. Customers of one Fry’s Food and Drug location in Scottsdale are now able to shop for groceries and place same- or next-day delivery orders using the grocer’s website or mobile app. There’s no minimum order, but there is a flat delivery fee of $5.95.
The pilot will be a bit different than the average Nuro experience in that it will not actually use the customer-built “toaster on wheels.” For its first outing, it seems the firm will make a more conventional move and use a fleet of custom-outfitted Toyota Prius cars.
“The Priuses share many software and hardware systems with the R1 custom vehicle, so while we complete final certification and testing of the R1, the Prius will begin delivering groceries and help us improve the overall service and customer experience,” Nuro noted in a statement.
And though the start is small, Nuro is hopeful for big things, given that Kroger operates thousands of stores nationwide and already offers same-day delivery to 75 percent of its customer base.
“We want to be available to every single customer of ours,” Kroger Chief Digital Officer Yael Cosset told a news outlet.
And if Nuro can help them bridge that gap, Kroger is onboard to help them finish out the development process.
But probably most excited about what’s next are Nuro’s founders, who noted they are cautious not to “put all their eggs in one basket” on the basis of their new relationship with Kroger, but that they can’t help but look forward to everything they will learn from delivering actual groceries to actual customers.
“With the pilot, we’re excited about getting more experience interacting with real customers and understanding exactly what they want,” Ferguson said. “The things they love about it, and the things they don’t love as much. As an organization, it’s also very valuable for us to have to exercise our operational muscle.”