When Mountain View-based robotics company Nuro released the first generation of its self-driving delivery vehicle in 2018, like any other road car, the vehicle was required by law to have side mirrors and windshield wipers. ice cream.
But unlike most other vehicles on the road at the time, Nuro’s machine didn’t need any of those appendages to operate safely, because it was driverless.
“We literally stuck side mirrors on the vehicle,” laughed Dan Mitchell, Nuro’s senior manager for city and community engagement. “The 360-degree camera can see all around. You don’t need mirrors to check your blind spots, because there aren’t any.”
Similarly, wipers affixed to the vehicle’s mini-windshield were required by California law but, without a driver or even a driver’s seat, served no purpose. The roughly golf cart-sized machine is designed to only move goods (about 24 bags of groceries), not humans.
“But for us, it was really important to follow those laws,” Mitchell said. “If that’s how it’s written, we’re going to comply.”
Today, these remnants are no longer required on Nuro vehicles: state and federal laws have since evolved to make exceptions for the types of machines that Nuro builds. But the fact that Nuro never had to add these extraneous features shows how pioneering the company’s technology was, said Santiago Sinisterra, brand marketing manager at Nuro.
“If you look at the AV (autonomous vehicle) landscape, there are people out there trying really hard,” Sinistera said. “But we’re really the only ones leading the way to self-driving delivery without an occupant.”
This first-generation product, dubbed R1, was Nuro’s original vision in physical form: a small, highly efficient, all-electric, occupant-less vehicle whose sole purpose is to make deliveries, allowing it to drive much longer. slower than a car built to transport humans.
“While R1 was a bit like a proof of concept, R2 was like our fleet of prototypes of which we have several, and we are confident to put them on the roads,” Sinisterra said of the second-generation vehicle. company. “Then our next generation, which we call the Nuro, is supposed to be made in the thousands, like any utility vehicle.”
On August 8, Nuro celebrated its sixth anniversary, and a lot has changed since R1’s debut. Today, the company is leaving behind “those comical things around the edges,” like bite-sized mirrors and adorably tiny windshield wipers, Sinisterra said, “because we led the way in this space”.
Last December, Nuro launched its autonomous vehicle technology in a pilot program in Mountain View, allowing customers ordering at 7-Eleven at 1905 Latham St. to opt for autonomous delivery. Nuro is still testing its owner-occupied vehicle on the streets of Mountain View, so for now, 7-Eleven deliveries are being made in a Toyota Prius equipped with the same 360-degree camera technology. A human sits in the driver’s seat for these deliveries, but the car still drives itself.
“It’s the exact same sensor stack that’s on the robots,” Sinistera said. “So in essence it’s a way for us to gradually integrate our vehicles without an occupant. It allows us to put someone in there and focus on the safety aspect, because they’re pilots and it’s is the start of their deployment.”
When Nuro is ready to launch its self-driving tech in Mountain View, the company will use its proprietary vehicles, so don’t expect to see driverless Prius driving around town.
“Once we hit the internal crash bars, we can move on to our unoccupied vehicle,” Sinistera said.
Technically, Nuro could make this transition now: the company is fully authorized not only to deploy its autonomous vehicles, but also to have them make commercial deliveries.
“California has a pretty rigorous self-driving vehicle licensing process,” Senior Manager Mitchell said. “You can get a license to test autonomous vehicles on the road, and (with Nuro) there are about 50 or 60 companies that have that license. Then you can get a license to test a vehicle without an occupant on the road: we got this license along with four or five other companies, and we were the first company to get a business license, bill and pay for the services.
What’s keeping Nuro from making that leap right now in Mountain View is the company’s own rigorous internal testing standards, Mitchell said.
“The R2 has been road tested here in the region, and when we feel comfortable and ready for it to deliver the consistent service that customers expect, until the test proficiency matches the objectives of the driver, that’s when it all comes together,” Mitchell said.
Since the pilot launch of Nuro’s Prius fleet in Mountain View, Mitchell said the ride has been relatively smooth with no crashes or accidents related to the 7-Eleven delivery program.
“The reason you make drivers is to learn, and if everything goes as planned, you probably haven’t set up the driver the right way,” Mitchell said. “The key learning was, how do our services fit into the 7-Eleven mobile app? … It’s not something someone on the street is necessarily going to see, but with these long-term partnerships term, this work is really important.”
The Mountain View driver is also essential for building a customer experience database.
“That gets captured by our autonomy team and re-run thousands of times in the simulation to iterate and make sure it gets better with each of those pieces,” Sinistera said. “A single release translates to thousands of versions of how we simulate and test our autonomy.”
Nuro does not yet have an exact date for when its occupant-less robots will make deliveries on the streets of Mountain View. But when it does, the company believes that every Nuro electric vehicle that’s on the road instead of a traditional car is a step towards eliminating vehicle deaths and emissions.
“The US Department of Transportation has reported that the number of (vehicular) fatalities is increasing,” Mitchell said. “Nuro is building a system that always pays attention, always obeys the speed limit, drives at that slower speed – a vehicle designed to protect people outside. Hopefully we see those numbers reverse.”