Despite entering the year 2020 without jetpacks and hover cars, we do have some giant leaps in automation and technology to look forward to. One of those giant leaps comes in the form of self-driving vehicle designed to deliver groceries, which might be coming to a neighborhood near you in the near future.
Forbes’ writer Alan Ohnsman reports that “Nuro, a self-driving tech startup created by two former Google engineers, says it’s the first company to win approval from U.S. regulators to test its battery-powered driverless delivery vehicles on public streets.” The vehicles themselves are “little vans without steering wheels or pedals that resemble rolling robotic toasters.”
Now things look bright for the young startup since the National Traffic Safety Administration approved Nuro for a special waiver allowing these “low-speed R2s [the vehicle model name, not the droid from Star Wars] which lack windshields and side mirrors and aren’t designed to carry human occupants, after a three-year process.” Nuro’s self-driving vehicles which will be delivery a range of materials ranging from simple groceries, fast food, and small sized packages are intended to be testing their initial fleet of test vehicles in the suburbs of Houston, Texas.
“Since this is a low-speed, self-driving delivery vehicle, certain features that the department traditionally required– such as mirrors and a windshield for vehicles carry drivers– no longer make sense,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao last Thursday. While this is good news for Nuro, this isn’t a federal endorsement of self-driving vehicles however.
The Verge reported that this is not without oversight however. While Nuro can operate their test vehicles, they will have to do so with “regulatory certainty” while utilizing public roads, according to David Estrada, Nuro’s chief legal officer.
Estrada told reporters from The Verge in a exclusive interview that “In order for them to grant this exemption, the process requires them to conclude that the vehicle itself is at least as safe as one that would be required to meet the standards,” continuing “That doesn’t mean that they look at the whole vehicle. But what it means is they say, ‘When Nuro removes the mirrors and doesn’t have the windshield and doesn’t have the backup camera, we conclude that the vehicle itself will be at least as safe as if it did have these things.’”
Public safety has been one of the biggest focuses in the discussion regarding automated vehicles, something Nuro is well aware of as they begin to start testing the new fleet. “The first thing on the minds of people and public policymakers is safety, so we think that the best way to do that is a vehicle designed with external safety in mind. So we are a lightweight vehicle that is less capable of inflicting harm than a 3,000-pound vehicle. It drives very safely when it comes down the road, and then when it stops, it’s narrow, it’s about two thirds the width of a regular car, easier for other cars [and] bicyclists and pedestrians to pass around.”
The test fleet is scheduled to begin as early as this summer.