Self Driving Delivery Vehicle First to Receive US DOT Approval
James Anderton posted on February 06, 2020 |
NHTSA exemption lets Nuro’s R2 start last mile service

The race to self driving is the most hotly contested market space in high technology today. In what may be a watershed moment, California-based Nuro has received US Department of Transportation approval to begin operation of the firm’s R2 local delivery vehicle on American streets. The company’s R2 vehicle is designed for last mile delivery of consumer goods, groceries and take-out foods. The company expects service in Houston Texas in a timescale the firm states as “weeks”.

The vehicle is small, and unlike current self driving vehicle prototypes which are conversions of conventional passenger vehicles, the R2 has no provision for a human driver. The request for NHTSA exemption included a request to remove traditional safety items required for human operated vehicles, such as rear-view mirrors and a windshield. Speed is limited to 25 mph and the company expects urban last mile delivery to be the primary market, at least initially.

Nuro tested an earlier generation robot delivery vehicle in December 2018 with grocery retailer Kroger in Scottsdale Arizona, and results from that experiment were used to design the R2 vehicle for longer lifespan and additional cargo space. The new design weighs 1150 kg and carries 190 kg of payload in a 22 ft.³ internal volume.

Specialty vehicle and racing car developer Roush developed the basic platform and sensors are both vendor supplied and developed in-house by Nuro. The sensor suite includes 360° overlapping cameras, a thermal imaging camera, lidar, short and long-range radar, ultrasonics and an audio detector for emergency vehicles. The company states that the R2 vehicle’s 31 kWh battery has sufficient endurance to allow all day operation. The R2 is designed to bring retail deliveries to curbside, where consumers retrieve their package from the vehicle using a private code through a keypad.

Nuro’s achievement is significant not just for the implications for last mile delivery of time sensitive cargoes like groceries and fast food, but for the future approval of all self driving vehicles. Nuro’s sensor suite follows current industry practice of multiple sensor types operating in multiple bandwidths with redundant braking and control systems. This is a first step; the DOT has issued an exemption from current regulations, as opposed to issuing a comprehensive set of new regulations for self driving vehicles. In the meantime, companies like Nuro can develop considerable on-the-ground experience which the firm expects to validate the sensor suite and software. If successful, future regulations may specify not just performance standards, but the type of sensor hardware required. If so, alternate technology such as Tesla’s camera-based system may have to be qualified under a different set of regulations. How those DOT regulations are set will likely have an impact on self driving technology going forward, and early adopters like Nuro who can establish safety levels matching or exceeding human driven vehicles, will not only have an advantage when lobbying the DOT, but a potential cost advantage as insurance carriers rate the risks of different self driving technologies. It’s unclear that the DOT will regard similar exemption petitions from robo taxi services currently developing driverless vehicles, but General Motors recently declared that the retooling of the firm’s Hamtramck, Michigan plant will include a self driving taxi vehicle with no steering wheel or controls. Nuro has not declared an intention to move into the robo taxi market, but the successful deployment in urban delivery service would validate a highly scalable and potentially marketable technology. Amazon’s own program to electrify their last mile delivery fleet with a 100,000 unit order from Rivian has produced prototypes with a full set of driver controls. Nuro technology in Amazon vehicles would seem to be a natural fit. We’ll keep you posted.

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