The future of autonomous food delivery to be decided in Houston

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The future of autonomous food delivery to be decided in Houston

By Mike Troy - 02/26/2020
Nuro's second generation R2 vehicle requires no onboard human involvement and boast a cargo capacity of 418 pounds.

Self-driving vehicle maker Nuro is pioneering a new era of autonomy after two federal agencies granted the company a first-of-its-kind exemption for a true driverless vehicle. The company is testing its second generation R2 model on the roadways of Houston after launching the R1 model in Scottsdale, AZ., in partnership with Kroger in December 2018.

“With (the R2), we can also bring our service to new cities, so more Americans can benefit from safe, efficient, convenient on-demand deliveries,” Nuro co-founder Tom Ferguson wrote in a blog post announcing the decision by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Nuro said the decision was the culmination of a three-year process and provides regulatory certainty to operate its second-generation self-driving vehicle designed for last-mile delivery of consumer products, groceries and hot food from local stores and restaurants. The exemption lets the company avoid certain regulations that were written decades ago for conventional passenger vehicles and truck in an era when zero-occupant vehicles weren’t imagined.

“(The exemption) allows us to replace the mirrors relied on by human drivers with cameras and other sensors. We can round the edges of the vehicle body to take up less road space, and make it safer for those around us,” according to Ferguson. “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, providing a constant 360-degree view with no blind spots.”

An always on review camera is one of those regulations written for humans that isn’t needed in a driverless vehicles because there are no drivers or occupants to be distracted.

The R2 has a carrying capacity of 418 pounds and when fully loaded a gross vehicle weight of 2,530 pounds, or about half the weight of a typical SUV, and it travels at only 25 miles per hour. To develop the vehicle, Nuro partnered with Roush, a name well known in the automotive racing world, to design and assemble the vehicles.

“We developed a more durable custom vehicle body, enabling us to handle inclement weather. We updated our sensor array with both supplier-provided and custom, in-house sensors,” according to Ferguson. “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.”

The design helps extend the vehicle’s lifespan, increase cargo space, and handle more varied conditions at a greater, city-wide scale. For Nuro, and the grocery industry at large, the Houston experiment could signal the beginning of a new era.

Ferguson called the regulatory approvals a first step in enabling safety innovations, but noted that exemptions are a temporary fix for an industry that’s reimagining what it means to drive.

“Moving forward, we must modernize the existing regulations that never envisioned a vehicle without a driver or occupants, and everyone in the industry must work to ensure self-driving technology is tested and deployed in the safest possible vehicles,” Ferguson said.