Autonomous Delivery Vehicle Offers Surprising Approach

autonomous delivery vehicle

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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 new startup that proposes a different spin on autonomous transportation recently came out of stealth. 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 is focused on deliveries, specifically the kind that are low-speed, local, and last-mile: groceries, laundry, etc. 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.

Unlike Amazon’s future autonomous ground vehicle, Toyota’s “e-palette” concept or the cooperation between Ford Motor Company and Domino’s to deliver pizza via a self-driving car, Nuro has been 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.

According to, a “handle” on the vehicle roof is actually a platform for its sensor array, which includes LIDAR, cameras, and radars. Inside there are no traditional controls like steering wheels, foot pedals, and gear shifts. There’s no driver seat because humans were not meant to operate this vehicle.

That said, Nuro is designing its vehicles for remote operation. To gain enough confidence for public deployment, Nuro is using a fleet of six self-driving cars to collect data and optimize routes, which then gets fed into its prototype vehicles.

The company has received a permit from the California DMV and plans to start testing on public roads later this year. But they will need sign-off from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before it can operate in states where regulation prohibits completely human-free driving.

The narrow structure of the vehicle is surrounded by a 3 to 4-foot “buffer” so other vehicles and pedestrians can maneuver safely around it. “Even if you have the perfect self-driving vehicle, if someone pops out between two parked cars and it’s within your stopping distance, you can’t prevent that accident,” said Dave Ferguson, the company co-founder. “Whereas if you have a vehicle that’s half the width, and you’ve got an extra three or four feet of clearance, you can avoid it… and you have room to maneuver around them. You can better design the vehicle to mitigate the severity of any accident.”

In the absence of a driver, the company envisions customers using an app to inform them when the vehicle has arrived in front of their building or in their driveway. They would then be given a code that pops open the vehicle’s side hatches so they can retrieve their items. They are also considering using facial recognition technology.