Road-legal delivery vehicles don’t even have space for a human driver.
Nuro, a startup founded by two veterans of Google’s self-driving car project, has reached an important milestone: it has started making fully autonomous grocery deliveries on public streets.
Fry’s Food, a brand owned by grocery giant Kroger, launched a self-driving grocery delivery program back in August in partnership with Nuro. Fry’s has been using Nuro cars to deliver groceries to customers near one of its stores on East McDowell Road in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Self-driving technology is going to change a lot more than cars
Initially, these deliveries were made by Toyota Priuses that Nuro had outfitted with its sensors and software. There were also safety drivers behind the wheel. Nuro says it has made 1,000 deliveries using these vehicles since August.
Now Nuro is making a leap to fully driverless operation using the R1, a new vehicle custom-built for autonomous deliveries. This new vehicle is significantly smaller and lighter than a conventional passenger car and doesn’t even have space for a human driver on board. Nuro says that it will now make deliveries with a combination of the Priuses and the R1. A Nuro spokeswoman says the company currently has two R1s on the road in Scottsdale and plans to “use them actively going forward.”
Nuro isn’t the first company to offer autonomous delivery services. Competitors like Marble and Starship have been offering autonomous vehicle deliveries for a while. But those startups have built robots designed to operate on sidewalks, which means they mostly move at walking speeds. By contrast, Nuro vehicles are designed to operate on public streets. They can move up to 25 miles per hour, allowing them to cover a larger area and get goods to customers more quickly.
Self-driving startups are pursuing incremental strategies
Nuro’s launch provides an interesting contrast to Waymo, which was scheduled to launch a commercial self-driving service in Chandler—just a few miles south of Nuro’s initial area of operations in the Phoenix area. Waymo’s launch was a disappointment. Waymo not only canceled plans to make the service fully driverless, it also limited the service to people who were already in Waymo’s existing “early rider” program.
A key difference here seems to be that Nuro’s launch plan was much less ambitious than Waymo’s. Waymo is trying to build a general-purpose taxi service that can handle all types of roads in a service territory that’s initially almost 100 square miles.
By contrast, Nuro cars are designed to stay below 25 miles per hour, and they initially only operate within a few miles of a single Scottsdale grocery store. Low speeds mean short stopping distances, reducing safety concerns. The low weight of the vehicle further bolsters safety since it’s less likely to do serious damage in the event of a crash. And since the company is only carrying groceries, not people, it doesn’t have to worry about the safety of vehicle occupants at all.
In short, Nuro is tackling a much easier problem than Waymo, allowing it to bring a fully driverless solution to market more quickly. If all goes well, Nuro will be able to demonstrate the safety of its fully driverless technology and expand to other locations, gaining valuable experience along the way.
Over the next few years, as Nuro amasses enough data to demonstrate an excellent safety record, Nuro should be able to gradually increase the speed and range of its services. Some day it could use the same technology stack to offer passenger-focused services—perhaps eventually competing directly with Uber and Lyft, as Waymo is trying to do now. And it could do all of that without incurring the massive costs Waymo faced as it drove 10 million miles with safety drivers behind the wheel.
Other startups are pursuing similar incremental strategies—but focusing on transporting passengers instead of goods. Startups like Voyage, May Mobility, Drive.ai, and Optimus Ride are building low-speed shuttle or taxi services in limited geographic areas. None of these projects is as ambitious as Waymo’s, but, precisely because they’re less ambitious, they’ve all managed to bring real commercial services to market. Most of them still have safety drivers behind the wheel, but the decision to initially focus on low-speed domains could allow them to dispense with safety drivers more quickly than rivals that are trying to offer a general-purpose taxi service right off the bat.