By on April 8, 2020

On Tuesday, self-driving startup Nuro received a permit from the State of California to commence testing on certain public roads. Issued by the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, the document allows its fleet of driverless delivery bots to mingle with traffic.

On a national level, Nuro’s vehicles are technically illegal without a smidgen of government help. U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards mandate road-going automobiles have things like windshields, airbags, and mirrors. Meanwhile, Nuro’s small delivery units don’t even have space for a driver — requiring the Department of Transportation to make regulatory exemptions for the brand in February after debating the issue for over a year. 

The only other company to have gotten this far with oversight groups is Waymo, the Alphabet-owned cab service that still prefers to keep safety drivers handy whenever possible. The two businesses, however, are quite different in their missions. Waymo has envisioned AVs as people movers since it was still calling itself the “Google Self-Driving Car Project.” Meanwhile, Nuro framed them as an extension of traditional robotics. While it acknowledges that self-driving vehicles would have the ability to shuttle around commuters, it has maintained a strong focus on delivery applications.

That allowed the current health pandemic to work in its favor. China made similar exemptions for small, self-driving delivery vehicles after Wuhan was placed under quarantine. Stickers on the vehicles indicated that they had recently been disinfected (while touting safe, no-contact deliveries). California has been in lockdown since March 19th, when Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all residents to stay home. While the official reasons for allowing Nuro to operate on California roads doesn’t include “response to statewide health crisis,” Chief Legal & Policy Officer David Estrada understands it’s a factor:

Nuro’s founding mission, to accelerate the benefits of robotics for everyday life, has never felt more real to us than it does today. Admittedly, while we have always believed that self-driving delivery vehicles would improve road safety and provide valuable convenience to consumers, we did not foresee our service helping to keep Americans safe from contagion. But the COVID-19 pandemic has expedited the public need for contactless delivery services. Our R2 fleet is custom-designed to change the very nature of driving, and the movement of goods, by allowing people to remain safely at home while their groceries, medicines, and packages, are brought to them.

Today, as we live through a public health crisis, Nuro has received 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. It is only the second driverless testing permit California has granted to any company. This permit now allows Nuro to begin testing our recently unveiled R2 vehicle, in service with our partners, starting in the Silicon Valley region.

Designed to navigate tight corridors, the R2 measures only about 43 inches wide and 108 inches long, despite having the same overall height as a regular sedan. With no space for a driver, interior volume is utilized entirely for the stowage of goods. The doors swing upward and mounted high to allow for curbside deliveries. It’s actually a thoughtful little package with real usefulness baked into its design — even if it weighs as much as a Honda Fit and can only haul 418 pounds worth of cargo in a space smaller than some trunks.

Entirely electric, the R2 uses a 31-kWh battery and has a top speed of 25 mph. While that makes long-range runs a problem, that wasn’t a task that ever appeared on the little droids’ roof-mounted radar. The R2 is designed for operation in densely populated urban areas and might not work anywhere else, from a business perspective. This type of service needs plenty of regular customers to offset operational costs and the considerable R&D that goes into their development. Expecting one to run 40 miles out to the nearest farmhouse probably isn’t in the cards. Still, it might work in serving 20 people who all live within 10 miles of each other, especially if they’re disinclined to leave the house.

There are other potential applications, too. Vehicles like Nuro’s R2 could run supplies between hospitals if infection rates suddenly ramp up in nearby areas. Yet everything hinges on the effectiveness of the systems these vehicles use to navigate through their environment. Progress on self-driving has proven less impressive than the tech and automotive industries had hoped. Still, the NHTSA has allowed Nuro to field 5,000 test vehicles without drivers to see how it fares.

For now, it cannot legally charge for deliveries and its currently assessing its strategy for deployment in California. That might actually postpone the launch until after COVID-19 subsides somewhat, as Nuro has said it plans on adhering to California’s social-distancing measures to keep its own workforce safe.

[Images: Nuro]

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11 Comments on “California Greenlights Autonomous Delivery Vehicles for Public Roads...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Just because people aren’t on board doesn’t make them safe for mingling among pedestrians, bikers, and cars.

    That 31 kWH battery will provide a lot of range in such a light vehicle at low speeds – maybe 200 miles?

    Do they carry insurance for lost/stuck packages, and how will they guard against it being AV-jacked on a flatbed? The specter of seeing one of these wrecked in a ditch with grandma’s groceries (let alone hospital samples) on board is unnerving.

    • 0 avatar

      These will end up in the river next to the scooters. It’ll be a fun game to tip them over, confuse them with obstacles, etc. How hard would it be to order a delivery to a street with no cameras, then rob the thing?

  • avatar

    This will end in tears. It’s all just so stupid.

  • avatar

    I understand that nobody is happy with progress but what is the alternative? To drive ICE car until the end of time?

  • avatar

    BTW. California is not “on lockdown”. People have been told to stay home unless they have an “essential” job or they are shopping for food, medicine etc. The only ones locked up are in the jails/prisons.
    Also I agree with those that say these delivery robots will end up like the scooters.

    • 0 avatar

      They’ll have to carry a new version of those signs on delivery trucks: “Vehicle Carries No Toilet Paper”.

  • avatar

    Not wanting something to be true doesn’t keep it from happening. Follow the money. This will happen. Nuro may or may not be the company that makes it happen, but it’s going to happen. Our goal should not be to smash the looms, but to make sure the transition is safe and that we give opportunities to the workers whose livelihoods are disrupted.

    • 0 avatar

      The hard part will be software smart enough to handle the chaos of public roads. We aren’t there yet and I suspect we won’t be for several decades. The transportation business where it should be easiest is the railroads. Except for occasional crossovers, it’s a one dimensional environment. They already have an elaborate sensor system in place. All that’s needed is to replace fallible human operators with relatively infallible computers. So far, because of the cost of implementation over so much track and so many locomotives, they haven’t done so.

  • avatar

    We’ll see if it works….

  • avatar

    Leave it to California to screw this pooch.

    Autonomous vehicles should be outright illegal. Failing that, every “unintended consequence” including collisions needs to be legally the responsibility of the company manufacturing the autonomous vehicle.

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