Delivery robots might become the new norm during the COVID-19 pandemic. One Mountain View robotics startup is set to deploy its driverless vehicles on local streets as part of a new service to make contactless deliveries.
Nuro recently received approval from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test its driverless vehicles in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. It's the second company, along with Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo, to receive approval to operate its vehicles on public streets.
The startup received permission from the state to test its autonomous vehicles in 2017, as long as safety drivers were behind the wheel. The new permit now allows Nuro to test its vehicles without safety drivers in nine cities, according to an April 7 statement from the DMV.
Nuro robots are set to hit the streets in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Menlo Park, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Atherton, Woodside, East Palo Alto and Sunnyvale.
Robot delivery service is not an entirely new concept to Silicon Valley or many other cities across the country. In the past few years, Starship Technologies had deployed its small, six-wheeled cubed robots on the sidewalks of Redwood City and Mountain View strictly for food deliveries, but on a limited scale.
Nuro's larger vehicles, however, are outfitted to deliver full groceries, pizza and other goods from local retailers. The company's second generation, driverless vehicles, called "R2," are about 6 feet tall and 9 feet long. The vehicles have a maximum speed of 25 mph and will be able to operate in "fair weather conditions on streets with a speed limit of no more than 35 mph," according to the DMV.
Currently, Nuro delivers across six ZIP codes throughout Houston, Texas, reaching 65,000 households, according to a company spokesperson. "Between the first week of the shelter-in-place order ... through April 17, we saw the demand for Nuro delivery orders at Kroger's two pilot grocery stores in Houston nearly double," the spokesperson said in an email.
For now, the company has not indicated when it will start testing its fully driverless vehicles for the first time in California. Nuro's spokesperson said that nothing in the DMV permit limits the startup from testing its vehicles during the stay-at-home orders, but the company has redirected its focus to helping frontline workers during the COVID-19 crisis.
The vehicles are being utilized to transport food, water, medical supplies, linens and other essential supplies to health care workers depending on the demand.
Nuro currently has deployed several of its R2 vehicles to Sacramento and San Mateo County, where Sleep Train Arena and the San Mateo County Event Center are being repurposed into temporary hospitals during the pandemic. Watch a video of Nuro's R2 vehicles at Sleep Train Arena here.
The company spokesperson said that the vehicles initially will be remotely operated by people, but will transition into autonomy as soon as possible.
In the near future, the company will begin testing its zero-occupancy vehicles in Mountain View with free delivery service, according to a blog post from Nuro's Chief Legal Officer David Estrada.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.