Robot delivery vans help drive innovation

January 30, 2018 GMT

The future of driverless driving looks like a giant toaster with a funny hat.

That’s an approximation of a new autonomous vehicle unveiled Tuesday by Nuro, a Silicon Valley startup that’s been cryptic about its business plan since it launched about 18 months ago. Nuro’s shiny, minimalist appliance on wheels doesn’t have doors or windows to speak of, because it will be carrying packages, not people.

As every major automaker and dozens of tech companies race to replace drivers in Ubercars and taxi fleets, Nuro is ignoring humans altogether and steering for Amazon.com Inc., United Parcel Service and any retailer looking to build its e-commerce business.“We realized we could make it possible to deliver anything, anytime, anywhere,” said co-founder Dave Ferguson. “We like to call it a local teleportation service.”

Nuro’s delivery pod weighs about 1,500 pounds, with most of that mass packed into a battery pack that powers its electric motor. It’s roughly the same length and height as a conventional SUV, but only 31/2 feet wide. There is a glass windshield, mostly just to keep other drivers from freaking out.

Each will come with a modular, customizable interior that can carry about 250 pounds.

Of course, Nuro isn’t the first company to notice the Amazon Prime packages piling up on porches. Ford Motor Co. began testing human-free pizza delivery with Domino’s last summer. Toyota Motor Corp. rolled out a delivery vehicle in Las Vegas this month.Dubbed e-Palette, the futuristic van already has partnerships with Amazon.com and Pizza Hut. Renault-Nissan plans to unveil a driverless delivery van in September. UdelvInc., a self-driving startup, is testing an autonomous delivery vehicle in California this month.

However, Nuro, by all accounts a scrappy newcomer, has some street cred. Co-founders Jiajun Zhu (who goes by “Jay-Z”) was one of the first engineers working on Waymo, the self-driving unit launched by Google (now Alphabet Inc.) Ferguson, who has a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon,joined him there in 2011.

Since leaving Waymo, the pair has rounded up $92 million of venture capital over two rounds led by Banyan Capital and Greylock Partners. The company’s most critical asset, however, may be its staff. It’s lured dozens of workers from Bay Area giants, including Apple Inc., Google, Tesla Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc.. And it’s given them a relatively uncomplicated mission: Don’t worry about passengers.

The Nurovehicle, compared with similar robot cars, is skinny and slow, both of which make it relatively safe. It can avoid an errant child, for example, without leaving its lane. Meanwhile, it’s in no particular rush. “Most of these thing sort of drive like my grandma,” Ferguson said. “If someone’s inside the vehicle, that’s annoying. If no one’s inside the vehicle, that’s actually a strictly positive thing.”