Sun | Apr 22, 2018

Delivery! - With Nuro self-driving R1, your purchases just show up - in a toaster on wheels with no driver

Published:Sunday | March 4, 2018 | 12:00 AM

SAN FRANCISCO:

Self-driving cars can wait. What the world needs right now, says one Silicon Valley start-up, are small autonomous vans dedicated to delivering all the stuff we order online or at local shops.

That's the mission of Nuro, a tech company that on Tuesday announced that it will launch its electric-powered vehicle, the R1, later this year. The company currently is in talks with a few potential partners.

"People are busy, and they value convenience more than ever, and retailers are trying to cope with those consumer expectations," says Dave Ferguson, who founded Nuro along with fellow self-driving car engineer Jiajun Zhu. Both men worked for Google's self-driving car project for many years.

"We designed the R1 to be flexible, so it can be used for everything from your e-commerce packages to deliveries from a local dry cleaner," Ferguson says.

The Mountain View, California-based Nuro team consists of robotics veterans from Uber, Tesla, Apple, and General Motors as well as Carnegie Mellon University, although Ferguson declined to disclose its size. The company has raised $92 million from venture capital firms such as Banyan Capital and Greylock Partners.

Local "last mile" delivery remains a challenge for many retailers as consumers increasingly want their purchases to arrive at their doorstep as soon as possible. Large delivery companies have been joined by start-ups such as Postmates and DoorDash to try and fill the immediate-delivery gap.

While FedEx and UPS use gas- or diesel-powered trucks driven by workers who bring packages to the front door, Nuro hopes that the R1 will present retailers large and small with an eco-friendly, on-demand delivery alternative whose cost notably does not include paying a driver.

But in notable contrast to UPS and others, Nuro will require consumers to be at home so that they can retrieve their package from inside the van when it pulls up to their curb.

 

Driverless vehicle

 

Another hurdle: Getting the necessary regulatory nods to operate a commercial driverless vehicle on public roads. First deployment is likely to be in a city willing to let the tech be tested.

Nuro also is taking a very different delivery-robot tack than start-ups such as Marble and Estonia-based Starship Technologies, which are focused on deploying small, knee-high delivery bots - more coolers on wheels than small vans. Those vehicles operate on sidewalks and crosswalks but not city streets.

In Virginia and Idaho, lawmakers last year approved statewide use of such sidewalk delivery bots as long as they don't exceed a certain weight. But San Francisco's city council late last year voted to restrict bot deployment for fear of pedestrian thoroughfares being overrun by little droids.

Amazon and other companies also have been toying with the notion of delivering smaller packages by drone. But Ferguson feels confident that his solution will beat flying ones to the punch.

"There's a lot of promising work there for sure, but there needs to be more regulatory approval and public acceptance," the roboticist says. "Whatever ends up happening with drones, we have already built roads for vehicles to travel on, so that just feels like a natural for deliveries."