'Unforeseen Technologies' Power Self-Driving Delivery Vehicle in Pandemic

There are occasions when new technologies arrive with perfect timing. The COVID-19 crisis may be that time for Nuro's R2 driverless delivery vehicle, now making test runs in Silicon Valley.

In the works since the Mountain View startup was founded in September 2016, the concept of a driverless and passenger-less vehicle that can bring groceries to a consumer's house seems like the perfect fit for these stay-at-home times. In early April, with its population under orders to limit trips even to the grocery store, the state of California gave Nuro permission to begin operating on public roads.

In a Medium blog announcing the first road tests for R2, David Estrada, chief legal and policy officer at Nuro, noted that the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) permission came in the midst of the health crisis, where the technology can make a difference.

"Admittedly, while we have always believed that self-driving delivery vehicles would improve road safety and provide valuable convenience to consumers, we did not foresee our service helping to keep Americans safe from contagion," he wrote. "But the COVID-19 pandemic has expedited the public need for contactless delivery services. Our R2 fleet is custom-designed to change the very nature of driving, and the movement of goods, by allowing people to remain safely at home while their groceries, medicines, and packages, are brought to them."

Unlike driverless cars that carry passengers, R2 is designed specifically to ensure the safety of people on the road from drivers of standard cars to bicyclists and pedestrians.

"With its specially designed size, weight, pedestrian-protecting front end, operating speed, electric propulsion, and cautious driving habits, R2 is ready to begin service as a socially responsible neighborhood vehicle that you can trust," explained Nuro co-founder Dave Ferguson in a blog earlier this year. The uniqueness of the R2 design qualified it for an "unforeseen technology" exemption from U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rules.

The DOT exemption made it possible to build a "zero passenger vehicle" with design changes that go beyond what can be done when a traditional car is modified for driverless operation, Ferguson explained.

"It allows us to replace the mirrors relied on by human drivers with cameras and other sensors," he wrote. "We can round the edges of the vehicle body to take up less road space, and make it safer for those around us. In addition, we can remove the windshield meant to let human drivers see out and keep passengers in -- instead using a specially designed panel at the vehicle's front that absorbs energy, better protecting pedestrians. And we won't have to ever turn off the rearview cameras that help R2 see (part of a rule meant to avoid distracting human drivers), providing a constant 360-degree view with no blind spots."

Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu founded Nuro after working on Google's driverless car technology. Zhu was "one of the founding engineers of Google's self-driving car project, Waymo, serving as the principal software engineer," according to a Wikipedia history of the Nuro. "Ferguson helped lead Carnegie Mellon University's robotics team to victory in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge before also joining Google's self-driving car project in 2011 as its principal computer-vision and machine-learning engineer."

To build the R2 vehicle and its predecessor, RI, Nuro partnered with Roush Enterprises Inc., an engineering, prototyping and manufacturing company based in Livonia, Mich.

Listing the added features in the R2 model, Ferguson wrote: "We added two-thirds more compartment space without increasing vehicle width, and we introduced temperature control to help keep food fresh. R2 uses a custom battery solution that nearly doubled the R2 battery size, enabling all day operation."

An NBC News segment showed how the earlier RI model operated in a test with the Kroger grocery stores in Arizona. The customer orders and pays for the groceries online from a PC or smartphone, and store employees select and bag the items that are loaded into the vehicle. When it arrives at the customer's home, the customer walks out to the vehicle parked at their curb, gets the groceries and carries them into the house.

Besides the test runs in Silicon Valley, Nuro also began operating R2 deliveries this month with Kroger in Houston, Texas.