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Autonomous Delivery Startup Nuro Granted Permission From U.S. Regulators to Deploy its Tiny Electric Vehicles

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【Summary】The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have approved a regulatory exemption for California autonomous delivery startup Nuro to deploy its compact autonomous delivery vehicles.

Eric Walz    Feb 06, 2020 11:05 AM PT
Autonomous Delivery Startup Nuro Granted Permission From U.S. Regulators to Deploy its Tiny Electric Vehicles
The Nuro R2 electric and autonomous delivery vehicle.

The days of a pizza delivery person knocking on your door may soon be over. In the future, small autonomous vehicles might roam the streets alongside human-operated ones, making last-mile deliveries of meals, groceries and e-commerce packages.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have approved a regulatory exemption for California autonomous delivery startup Nuro to deploy its compact, second generation, autonomous delivery vehicle named the "R2."

Silicon Valley-based Nuro, founded in 2016, is one of dozens of startups working on autonomous, last-mile delivery. The first company to be granted a self-driving vehicle exemption, which allows the company's fully-electric driverless delivery bots to operate public roads without human intervention. 

Americans "waste a lot of time running errands," Nuro said to Reuters, adding that it envisions "a future where everything comes to you, on-demand, for free."

By granting the exception to Nuro, the DOT is opening the doors for other companies that plan to deliver goods using unmanned vehicles designed to carry cargo instead of people. The DOT exemption also allowed Nuro to think outside the box when designing the R2.

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The R2 has the potential to be much safer and more versatile than a larger, human-operated delivery vehicle. Since its not designed to carry people, it doesn't require the systems mandated by the DOT for passenger vehicles, such as seat belts, air bags, ABS brakes, mirrors and driver controls, which significantly lowers its production costs for large scale deployments.

The fully electric R2 is limited to 25mph and has a specially designed pedestrian-protecting front end and is programmed with software to make it as safe as possible around pedestrians and other vehicles. It's also more nimble and better able to prioritize the well-being of other road users, according to Nuro.

Nuro is deploying the R2 on public roads in Houston, Texas in a pilot to prepare for its first deliveries to customers' homes. Nuro announced a partnership with retailer Walmart in December 2019.

Major U.S. brick and mortar retailers like Walmart are exploring new ways to improve their services to compete with online retailers, including offering same-day delivery or delivering orders curbside right to the customer's vehicle. These types of compact autonomous delivery vehicles might be the answer.

Nuro launched its first generation delivery vehicle called the R1 in December 2018 as part of a pilot with grocery chain Kroger in Scottsdale, Arizona. At the time, it was the first-ever unmanned delivery service for the general public. Nuro said it delivered thousands of customer orders together with Kroger.

With the knowledge gained from its first deployment, Nuro set out to build a new and improved delivery vehicle. Among the changes was adding more cargo space in the R2 and the ability vehicle's ability to handle more urban driving challenges in order to scale Nuro's business. 

The company also updated the R2 to handle the rigors of commercial delivery with a bigger battery for all day use without needing a charge. Among the upgrades are a more durable custom vehicle body, better suited to handle inclement weather. 

The redesigned R2 can also carry more stuff, with two-thirds more compartment space that can be temperature controlled to help keep food fresh while in transit. 

For building the R2, Nuro partnered with Roush Engineering, a product development supplier based in Michigan with its roots in the auto industry. Roush is best known for its high performance automotive engineering and supercharger upgrade kits, turning production vehicles like the iconic Ford Mustang into high horsepower, race-worthy machines.

Nuro said the exemption comes after three years of discussion with the DOT. To plead its case, Nuro provided the DOT with detailed information about Nuro's technology, including feedback from community leaders and citizens concerned about road safety. 

Going forward, Nuro said that it's eager to work with the DOT to design regulations specifically for zero-occupant delivery vehicles like the R2. The agency has already begun the process of designing rules and regulations for them.

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