California Greenlights Autonomous Delivery Vehicles for Public Roads

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
california greenlights autonomous delivery vehicles for public roads

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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  • B-BodyBuick84 B-BodyBuick84 on Apr 09, 2020

    We'll see if it works....

  • Schurkey Schurkey on Apr 09, 2020

    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.

  • Bobbysirhan I'd like to look at all of the numbers. The eager sheep don't seem too upset about the $1,800 delta over home charging, suggesting that the total cost is truly obscene. Even spending Biden bucks, I don't need $1,800 of them to buy enough gasoline to cover 15,000 miles a year. Aren't expensive EVs supposed to make up for their initial expense, planet raping resource requirements, and the child slaves in the cobalt mines by saving money on energy? Stupid is as stupid does.
  • Slavuta Civic EX - very competent car. I hate the fact of CVT and small turbo+DI. But it is a good car. Good rear seat. Fix the steering and keep goingBut WRX is just a different planet.
  • SPPPP This rings oh so very hollow. To me, it sounds like the powers that be at Ford don't know which end is up, and therefore had to invent a new corporate position to serve as "bad guy" for layoffs and eventual scapegoat if (when) the quality problems continue.
  • Art Vandelay Tasos eats $#!t and puffs peters
  • Kwik_Shift Imagine having trying to prove that the temporary loss of steering contributed to your plunging off a cliff or careening through a schoolyard?