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A look into Nuro’s self-driving future

Written by Theo Koenig - November 12, 2020

Edited by Asaf Kedem

The market for self-driving vehicles is expanding at an unprecedented pace. Nuro, the self-driving delivery start-up from California, secured another round of investor funding in the amount of $500 million just last week. This comes after a first round of investment totaling $940 million from Softbank and venture capitalist firm Greylock last year. As another example of what else is out there, Nuro’s competitor Waymo, the self-driving division of Alphabet, just obtained $3 billion in funding and their vehicles were recently announced as being commercially available for rides in Phoenix, Arizona. However, whereas Waymo is focusing on the autonomous ride-sharing sector, Nuro aims to dominate the delivery business with self-driving R2 units. So, who are Nuro, and what do they hope to achieve with their latest vehicle – the R2?

The R2 is a light, narrow and nimble autonomous delivery vehicle that is already being tested on public roads in Arizona and California. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration in the U.S. has in fact granted Nuro with 5000 licenses for R2 units for public road usage, to be handed out over the next two years. The fully electric vehicle is equipped with 12 cameras that provide the R2s with a constant 360° view through use of LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scanners as well as ultrasonic, radar and audio sensors. The R2 specs are detailed below:

The start-up prides itself on creating a truly safe vehicle, both in terms of software and hardware. All driving and safety systems have redundancies, with backups in the vehicle for components such as computing and sensing, as well as braking, steering, power, and throttle systems. The R2 software furthermore includes advanced machine learning, meaning that the system is capable of continual improvement as it continues driving. This feature is put to use when the R2 updates its 3D-generated maps upon encountering potholes and other hazards and is also useful when learning unpredictable road user behavior. Another advanced feature is the “crumple zone”. One of the advantages of having driverless cars is that all the focus can be put towards protecting pedestrians and surrounding vehicles as there are no passengers inside to protect. Nuro has used this benefit to create a front-end panel which absorbs energy and “crumples” upon pedestrian contact. The lack of driving seats, steering wheel, and so on, also means that the width and weight of the R2 units are reduced to half of that of a normal car, making it far nimbler in avoiding potential crashes. Finally, instead of prioritizing speed, the R2’s low speed will help give the system more time to react and prevent collisions.

In terms of design, the company has aimed at creating a people-centric model. The positioning and sizing of the compartments prevent customers from having to bend over in order to retrieve their goods. Moreover, the doors to the vehicle open vertically (without swinging outwards), allowing the R2 to park close to the curbside and meaning customers can stand near the vehicle and unload their goods in the easiest possible manner.

Nuro is currently developing a business model that would avoid charging customers directly for the delivery, instead imposing fees on retailers whose goods the R2 can deliver. In terms of goods, Nuro is declining to restrict itself to one specific sector. Instead, the company says the R2 units will be capable of delivering groceries, dry-cleaning, pet food, and even prescription medication. Currently the R2 is involved in a pilot program with the Kroger supermarket chain in Scottsdale, Arizona and a partnership with CVS pharmacy was announced in May of this year.

Auto Trendy’s take:

Nuro estimates that up to 23% of trips made by Americans are for the purposes of running errands, which unnecessarily increases the risk of accidents, emitted pollution, and traffic congestion. The elegant solution provided by Nuro aims to solve all of these problems with one small vehicle- the R2. Considering the vast amounts of funding the company continues to receive, it would be foolish of us at Auto Trendy to say anything against the promise of the idea. In fact, we believe that by orienting themselves as a B2B company, much of the skepticism that customers retain towards driverless vehicles can be offset by the economies that business can directly profit from. That being said, Nuro has a long road ahead of them, with designs for production only just beginning and federal and local laws tightening around the autonomous vehicle sector. Nevertheless, we hope to see R2 vehicles on U.S. roads very soon.