US government paves path for self-driving delivery vehicles

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Nuro is partnering with Walmart to delivery groceries autonomously in Houston.
Image: Nuro

This week, the U.S. federal government gave a Silicon Valley startup the green light to deploy its self-driving delivery cars. Mountain View-based Nuro is now cleared to launch 5,000 autonomous vehicles across the country over the next two years. The company is already testing its vehicles on private land.

The U.S. Department of Transportation approved the R2 model to drive through public streets with deliveries. The R2 has no steering wheel or side mirrors, and there are no pedals, as the purpose of Nuro’s car is to drive entirely human-less with various types of cargo loads.

Nuro plans to deploy its autonomous cars in six Houston zip codes where 160,000 people live. The first type of cargo will be Domino’s pizza, although there is currently no set start date. The startup also announced a partnership with Walmart back in December for Houston-area grocery delivery as well.

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Meeting Government Standards

Like the rest of the world, the federal government is figuring out how to prepare for a self-driving car future. Currently, the government recognizes certain standard features in vehicles, such as steering wheels and pedals. Some autonomous car manufacturers are eliminating these completely, which means they don’t comply with the standard definition. Consequently, they have to apply for exemptions to bring their disruptive technology to market.

Elaine Chao, Transportation Secretary, clarified, “Since this is a low-speed self-driving delivery vehicle, certain features that the department traditionally required — such as mirrors and windshield for vehicles carrying drivers — no longer make sense.”

Nuro’s R2 model is technically a low-speed vehicle. It drives less than 25 miles per hour and weighs less than 2,500 pounds. However, it doesn’t have to meet the same safety standards as other cars and SUVs. The government is requiring Nuro to report any crash-related information, as well as provide general updates on the vehicle’s performance throughout the launch period.

Rolling Out the R2

When the R2 first deploys, vehicles will be followed by human drivers in other cars. These individuals will monitor operations and step in if anything goes wrong. Initially, Nuro will focus on managing a few hundred autonomous delivery vans across Houston before expanding to other markets. If all goes well, the startup will kick things into high gear with the R3. Nuro expects to manufacture thousands of its next model, for which there is no published timetable.

While other self-driving pioneers ultimately want to transport people, Nuro has kept a focused view on cargo delivery. Overall, there are fewer safety and ethical challenges to solve with non-human deliveries. Carrying groceries or pizzas makes it much easier for self-driving algorithms to choose what to protect in crash scenarios.

So far, Nuro’s competitors have yet to apply for government exemptions, as most existing models include standard vehicle features. Consequently, they have gotten to market much more quickly. However, Waymo might not be far behind given its intentions to launch a UPS delivery channel in Phoenix this year.

As for the city of Houston, I’m expecting a huge spike in pizza deliveries in 2020. Well played, Domino’s. Well played.

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