When Mountain View-based robotics company Nuro brought the first generation of its autonomous delivery vehicle to market in 2018, like any other road-going car, the vehicle was required by law to have side-view mirrors and windshield wipers.
But unlike most other vehicles on the road at the time, Nuro's machine didn't need either of these vehicular appendages to operate safely, because it was driverless.
"We literally glued side-view mirrors onto the vehicle," Dan Mitchell, Nuro's senior manager for city and community engagement, said with a laugh. "The 360-degree camera can see all around. You don't need side-view mirrors to check your blind spots, because there aren't any."
Similarly, the wipers affixed to the vehicle's mini-windshield were required by California law but, without a driver or even a driver's seat, served no purpose. The roughly golf-cart sized machine is designed to move cargo only (about 24 grocery bags worth), not humans.
"But for us, it was really important to follow those laws," Mitchell said. "If this is how it's written, we're going to comply with that."
Today, these vestiges are no longer required on Nuro vehicles: state and federal law have since evolved to make exceptions for the types of machines that Nuro builds. But the fact that Nuro ever had to add these extraneous features shows how pioneering the company's technology was, said Santiago Sinisterra, Nuro's head of brand marketing.
"If you look at the AV (autonomous vehicle) landscape, there are people doing really great efforts," Sinisterra said. "But we are really the only ones who are paving the space for zero occupant, autonomous delivery."
That first generation product, dubbed R1, was Nuro's original vision in physical form: a small, highly efficient, all-electric, zero-occupant vehicle that's sole purpose is to make deliveries, which allows it to drive much slower than a car built for transporting humans.
"While R1 was kind of like a proof of concept, R2 was like our prototype fleet of which we have multiple, and feel confident about putting them on roads," Sinisterra said of the company's second generation vehicle. "Then our newest generation, which we call the Nuro, is meant to actually be made by the thousands, the way any commercial vehicle is."
On Aug. 8, Nuro celebrated its sixth anniversary, and a lot has changed since the early days of R1. Today, the company leaves behind "these comical things on the edges," like bite-sized mirrors and adorably tiny windshield wipers, Sinisterra said, "because we've paved the way in this space."
Last December, Nuro launched its autonomous vehicle technology in a pilot program in Mountain View, allowing customers ordering from the 7-Eleven at 1905 Latham St. to opt for autonomous delivery. Nuro is still testing its proprietary zero-occupant vehicle on the streets of Mountain View, so for now, the 7-Eleven deliveries are made in a Toyota Prius outfitted with the same 360-degree camera technology. A human sits in the driver's seat for these deliveries, but the car still drives itself.
"It's the exact same sensor stack that's on the robots," Sinisterra said. "So in essence, it's a way for us to phase into our zero-occupant vehicles. It allows us to put someone in there and focus on the safety aspect, because these are pilots and this is the beginning of their deployment."
When Nuro is ready to launch its zero-occupant technology in Mountain View, the company will use its proprietary vehicles, so don't expect to see any driverless Priuses cruising around town.
"Once we have hit internal bars of safety, then we can transition over to our zero-occupant vehicle," Sinisterra said.
Technically, Nuro could make that transition right now: the company is fully permitted to not only deploy its autonomous vehicles, but also have them make commercial deliveries.
"California has a fairly rigorous autonomous vehicle permitting process," senior manager Mitchell said. "You can get a permit to test autonomous vehicles on the road, and (along with Nuro) there are about 50 or 60 companies that have that permit. You can then get a permit to test a zero-occupant vehicle on the road: we've gotten that permit along with four or five other companies. And we were the first company to get a commercial permit, to actually charge and pay for services."
What's stopping Nuro from making that jump just yet in Mountain View is the company's own internal testing standards, which are rigorous, Mitchell said.
"The R2 has been testing on roads here in the area, and when we feel like we're comfortable and ready for that to provide the consistent service that customers expect, until that testing competence lines up with the pilot goals, that's when it all comes together," Mitchell said.
Since the pilot launch of Nuro's Prius fleet in Mountain View, Mitchell said it's been a relatively smooth ride, with no accidents or crashes related to the 7-Eleven delivery program.
"The reason why you do pilots is to learn, and if everything goes as expected you probably didn't set up the pilot in the right way," Mitchell said. "The key learning has been, how do our services integrate with the 7-Eleven mobile app? … That's not something someone on the street is necessarily going to see, but with those long-term partnerships, that work is really important."
The Mountain View pilot is also key for building up a database of customer experience.
"That gets captured by our autonomy team and gets rerun thousands of times in simulation, in order to iterate and make sure that it gets better with every one of those pieces," Sinisterra said. "A single delivery ends up as thousands of versions of the way that we simulate and we stress test our autonomy."
Nuro doesn't have an exact date yet for when its zero-occupant bots will make deliveries on the streets of Mountain View. But when it does, the company believes every electric Nuro vehicle that's on the road instead of a traditional car is a step toward making vehicle fatalities and emissions a thing of the past.
"The U.S. Department of Transportation has reported that the number of (vehicular) fatalities are increasing," Mitchell said. "Nuro is building a system that's always paying attention, always driving the speed limit, driving at that slower speed — a vehicle that's built to protect folks on the outside. Hopefully we'll see those numbers reverse."