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Nuro, the self-driving delivery startup founded by a pair of Google veterans, released its voluntary safety report on Thursday. Titled “Delivering Safety,” the 33-page document outlines the technology and procedures Nuro is using to safely deploy its fleet of autonomous delivery robots.
Formed in 2016, Nuro has set itself apart from other companies that are working on self-driving technology by focusing on delivery rather than ride-hailing. The startup recently announced a pilot delivery service in Arizona in partnership with grocery giant Kroger. In its report, Nuro touts what it believes are its competitive advantages.
We believe that self-driving delivery, and thus the resulting benefits, can be scaled sooner and more affordably, than self-driving passenger transportation. Our custom vehicle is engineered to make delivery of everything more accessible — from groceries to pet food, prescription drugs to dry cleaning.
Nuro is only the fourth company to release its safety report under the voluntary guidelines created by the US Department of Transportation. Others include Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet; General Motors; and, most recently, Ford Motor Company. The vast majority of companies developing self-driving technology, from major automakers to tiny tech startups, have yet to release their reports.
The safety reports signal which companies are the furthest along and feel confident enough in their self-driving tests to disclose details to the public. The reports serve as a glossy marketing tool for the companies to tout their commitment to safety and transparency, but they generally lack certain relevant statistics, like fleet size, total miles driven, and disengagement rates (or the number of times the vehicle’s software forced a human safety driver to take over operation of the vehicle).
A spokesperson for Nuro said the company wanted to release its safety report before it started public road testing its R1 prototype, a purpose-built driverless vehicle that is slimmer and shorter than typical sedans or SUVs. At first glance, the R1 (just an internal nickname, not the official name) looks like a giant lunchbox on wheels. If anything, Nuro’s first vehicle looks more like the original “Firefly” prototypes that Google officially retired in 2017.
The R1 serves as the centerpiece of Nuro’s safety report. The driverless vehicle is “lighter than a passenger vehicle, narrower and more nimble, and operates at slower speeds,” the company says. The R1 will likely max out at 25 mph, which would probably disqualify it from highway driving. And it may occasionally drive slower than posted speed limits, such as when it’s driving by crowded situations like sporting venues or bars.
The startup cites its plan to build fully driverless vehicles without consideration (or room) for human drivers as evidence of its strong commitment to safety.
With no driver or passengers to worry about, our vehicle can be built to keep what’s outside even safer than what’s inside. It’s lighter, nimbler, and slower than a passenger car, and is equipped with state-of-the-art software and sensing capabilities that never get distracted. With its smaller size and manufacturing costs, we can make vehicles more rapidly. And because it’s electric and fully self-driving, our vehicle can deliver life’s needs at an affordable price.
Beyond that, Nuro says its driverless vehicles can be programmed to “self-sacrifice” in the event of an unavoidable collision. This would appear to be a nod to the “Trolley Problem” that frequently comes up in discussions involving the ethics of self-driving cars.
Nuro is using a small fleet of Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf vehicles retrofitted with its self-driving hardware and software to conduct its pilot and public road tests. Those vehicles have human safety drivers behind the wheel, and Nuro describes the training program for those drivers in the report. Safety driver training came under harsh scrutiny earlier this year after a self-driving Uber crash killed a pedestrian in Arizona.
The customer experience earns a mention, with Nuro claiming that it will “feel familiar to anyone who has ordered a pizza or a package online.”
Simply place your order on the website or the mobile app, pick a delivery window, and then meet your vehicle at the curb. You will receive text message notifications when your order has departed the store and when it’s arriving at your location. Similar to other delivery services, you can track your Nuro vehicle live on a map once it’s on its way. As this will be many people’s first time interacting with a self-driving vehicle, we also have live customer service representatives available to answer questions by phone or through the vehicle’s touchscreen.
When the vehicle is about to arrive, you’ll receive an access code that securely opens the compartment door. Simply enter the code and the compartment door opens. Once you’re finished unloading your order, either tap “DONE” on the touchscreen or just walk away, and the door will close behind you.
The big difference, of course, is that Nuro’s delivery service won’t include a human being who will bring your delivery right to your door. This could prove difficult for customers who live in apartment buildings, have children, or are elderly or disabled.
Of particular interest is Nuro’s description of its operational domain. Self-driving cars are increasingly facing questions about when — if ever — they will be ready for mass deployment. The Uber crash sparked a public backlash, and chief executives at major companies like Waymo and Ford have started saying the technology is still further out than originally described.
Nuro tackles this issue by stating plainly where its vehicles are capable of driving and under what conditions. Only streets that Nuro has “carefully mapped” are fair game, the company says. And Nuro sidelines its fleet when the weather turns sour. This is fairly typical of self-driving car ventures, which tend to stick to flat, suburban communities with dry weather conditions. But it raises questions about a future in which autonomous cars are sophisticated enough to drive everywhere and under any conditions.