Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu have devoted their careers to robotics and machine learning, most recently as Principal Engineers at Google’s self-driving car project (now Waymo). They founded Nuro in 2016 to harness the power of robotics and artificial intelligence to solve new challenges at a global scale.
Ferguson says they settled on commercial deliveries for three reasons: It was a project that could reach a lot of people, it offered a technical challenge and a sustainable business model, and it could be executed within three to five years. A year later, they had built the vehicle they’re now revealing to the world: the R-1. Nuro’s debut vehicle is the height of a sedan but about half as wide, and as long as a Smart car. It navigates using the usual suite of self-driving sensors—cameras, radars, and a spinning lidar unit perched up top. It’s fully electric and has two cargo compartments that can be specialized to fit all sorts of things you’d pay money to send whizzing around town: bags of groceries flowers, pizzas. It looks like a cross between a picnic basket, a toaster, and an MSE-6-series repair droid.
“We’ve built the full software stack from scratch. There are a lot of components that are shared with general self-driving, and some things that are a bit different,” said Dave Ferguson who, along with Jiajun Zhu, co-founded Nuro. “We’ve been able to architecture this thing from scratch, geared toward this passenger-less, goods-only transportation.”
Ferguson said they considered building the R1 to drive on sidewalks but ultimately decided to make it road-worthy instead. The vehicle is about as tall as a Toyota Highlander but only about half the width, which Ferguson said is one of its standout features. This skinniness translates into a 3 to 4-foot “buffer” around the R1 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,” he said. “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.”
Nuro’s founders have plenty of work left to do, like convincing regulators to certify vehicles that aren’t built for humans (today’s rules require that all vehicles have things like seat belts and airbags), and finding a profitable business model, whether that’s contracting with specific restaurants or businesses, or running packages the proverbial last mile between distribution centers and their final destination.