Why sidewalk delivery robots still need safety drivers

Small, wheeled drones are delivering packages in some cities’but, like driverless cars, they need a helping hand a lot of the time. The robots: Starship Technologies has six-wheeled robots that deliver food in places like London and Silicon Valley.

Two ex-Google engineers built an entirely different kind of self

A new startup that proposes a different spin on autonomous transportation came out of stealth today. The company, called Nuro, was founded by two former lead Google engineers who worked on the famed self-driving car project. Unlike the plethora of self-driving startups out there, Nuro isn’t focused on reconfiguring robot taxis or autonomous trucks, but on designing a new type of vehicle altogether.

Nuro is focused on deliveries, specifically the kind that are low-speed, local, and last-mile: groceries, laundry, or your take-out order from Seamless. The startup thinks that automating these services could help shoulder the sharp increase in last-mile deliveries, while also reducing traffic accidents and boosting local businesses who are looking for ways to thrive and compete in the age of Amazon.

And their timing couldn’t be better. The converging trends of robotics, self-driving cars, and e-commerce are leading to an explosion of interest in the last-mile delivery challenge. Consumers are ordering more items online than ever before, and there is a growing expectation for shorter and shorter delivery windows. A recent study by McKinsey put the global price tag of last-mile delivery every year at around $86 billion, with staggering year-over-year growth rates.

Nuro is taking a different approach. Rather than dress up a Lexus crossover or a Ford Focus in self-driving hardware and throw some grocery sacks inside, their engineers have built something entirely new from the ground up. At first glance, Nuro’s R1 prototype (just an internal nickname and not the official name) looks like a giant lunchbox on wheels, or maybe even a mobile toaster. If anything, Nuro’s first vehicle looks more like the original ‘Firefly’ prototypes that Google officially retired last summer than anything you’d see on the road today.

But a closer inspection reveals that the ‘handle’ on the roof is actually a platform for the vehicle’s sensor array, which includes LIDAR, cameras, and radars. And a peek through the windshield will also reveal the complete absence of traditional controls like steering wheels, foot pedals, and gear shifts. There’s no driver seat because humans were not meant to operate this vehicle.

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Nuro Raises $92 Million for Adorable Autonomous Delivery Vehicles

It seems like we’ve gotten to the point with self-driving vehicles where it’s no longer enough to “just” be developing a car that could at some point be used as an autonomous rideshare vehicle. That space has gotten super crowded over the last few years and although it may not seem like it, the giant piles of money that self-driving vehicle (SDV) startups require are not infinite. So, what we’re seeing instead is more specialization into niches where specific sorts of SDVs can fulfill specific business cases.

The most popular (and realistic in the near term) niche is almost certainly delivery, because delivering stuff is what vehicles do when they’re not delivering people. This niche is being tackled at all scales, from Tesla’s autonomous semi trucks to sidewalk delivery robots from Starship and Piaggio Fast Forward. And now, somewhere in the middle, there’s Nuro.

Today, Nuro is announcing not only the fact that it exists, but also that it’s got one of those aforementioned giant piles of money ($92 million in Series A funding) along with a fully autonomous self-driving vehicle “designed to transform local commerce” by bringing things you want from local businesses directly to your home.

‘We started Nuro to make products that will have a massive impact on the things we do every day,’ said Nuro Co-founder Dave Ferguson. ‘Our world-class software, hardware, and product teams have spent the past 18 months applying their expertise to deliver on this mission. The result is a self-driving vehicle designed to run your errands for you. It is poised to change the way that businesses interact with their local customers.’

Nuro’s new vehicle is designed specifically to move goods between and among businesses, neighborhoods, and homes. The fully autonomous vehicle is unmanned and about half the width of a passenger car. It’s built with ultra-light materials and designed for neighborhoods. These combined design elements will make it one of the safest vehicles on the road.

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Nuro’s self-driving vehicle carries packages, not passengers

As Toyota proved by winning Engadget’s Best of CES 2018 award for its e-Palette, robotic cars that can deliver things other than humans are coming at us fast. A new startup called Nuro is capitalizing on that idea, but taking a different angle with its self-driving electric van. Rather than carrying things over long distances, the narrow, lightweight vehicles are designed to carry packages, and only packages, on “the last mile” to buyers.

The Nuro vehicles are around the same size as a normal crossover vehicle, but only 3.5 feet wide and just 1,500 pounds, with a 250 pound maximum payload. There’s a “windshield” so as not to alarm other drivers, but only space for food, boxes and other things — not drivers. The interior can be customized for dry-cleaners, florists and other types of businesses. On top is a typical self-driving sensor array with LiDAR, cameras and radar that can guide the vehicle through traffic to its destination.

Nuro seemed to come out of nowhere, but it was started by two former engineers from Google’s Waymo self-driving division, Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu. The company has already rounded up $92 million in capital and some of the Bay Area’s best engineers.

The fact that Nuro’s cars are relatively slow, take up little lane space, and carry no passengers gives the company a competitive leg-up, its founders believe. “For us, there are just some things we don’t need to worry about [like passengers],” Ferguson told Bloomberg. “Most of these things sort of drive like my grandma.”

Nuro’s system is pretty unique, but it has some formidable competition. Automakers like Ford and GM are working on their own self-driving cars for passengers and delivery, and a firm called Starship Technologies is experimenting with sidewalk robotic deliveries. On the same day Nuro launched, another startup called Udelv did the first demonstration of its own delivery vehicle, carrying groceries from a Silicon Valley store to a pair of customers, the Financial Times reports.

Reference

Mentioned in this article: Starship Technologies, Silicon Valley. Two, IEEE Spectrum Nuro

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