A different self-driving car built by Two ex-Google engineers

A new startup that proposes a different spin on autonomous transportation came out of stealth today. The company, called Nuro, was founded by two former lead Google engineers who worked on the famed self-driving car project. Unlike the plethora of self-driving startups out there, Nuro isn’t focused on re-configuring robot taxis or autonomous trucks, but on designing a new type of vehicle altogether.

Nuro  isn’t trying to dominate this industry, and it’s not settling for a role as a component supplier. The Silicon Valley startup did develop its own self-driving system, from scratch, but where its competitors talk about ride sharing, trucking, deliveries, and any other use case they can think of, Nuro is focused. The company, which came out of stealth mode today and just raised $92 million, is going after commercial deliveries, and it has designed a vehicle that—unless things go terribly—no human will ever sit inside.

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.

nuro_web_about_teamphoto

 

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.

For me I would just say that Nuro is so adorable I wouldn’t mind being run over by it when a glitch in the autonomous self driving software system occurs. It looks like it would make hit and runs pleasant for pedestrians.

Mystery void is discovered in the Great Pyramid of Giza

 

Some 4500 years ago, the ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramid of Giza as a tomb for the pharaoh Khufu, also known as Cheops, one that would ferry him to the afterlife. Now, using subatomic particles raining down from the heavens, a team of physicists has found a previously unknown cavity within Khufu’s great monument.

“Such a big void can’t be an accident,” says Mehdi Tayoubi, president of the non-profit Heritage Innovation Preservation Institute in Paris, who led the research. The discovery has already stirred the interest of archaeologists and particle physicists alike.

Made of an estimated 2.3 million stone blocks and standing 140 meters tall and 230 meters wide, the Great Pyramid is an engineering mystery, much like its two smaller sister pyramids, Khafre’s and Menkaure’s. Archaeologists know that it was built for Khufu, who died in 2566 B.C.E. But they have long wondered exactly how the pyramid was constructed and structured.

Now, archaeologists are getting help from an unlikely source: cosmic rays, subatomic particles that rain down from space. In fact, a team of physicists has found a previously unknown void within the pyramid by imaging it with muons, high-energy byproducts of cosmic rays that are created when protons and other atomic nuclei strike the atmosphere.

Every minute, tens of thousands of muons pass through each square meter of Earth. The particles are much like electrons but 207 times as massive. Because they’re so heavy, the negatively charged particles can travel through hundreds of meters of stone before being absorbed—whereas electrons make it only a few centimeters. So just as doctors use x-rays to look into our bodies, physicists can use muons to peek into thick structures—from volcanoes to disabled nuclear power plants. To do that, all researchers need to do is to place a muon detector, such as tile-sized special photographic films, underneath, within, or near an object and count the number of muons coming through the thing in different directions.

One of the first times scientists used muon imaging was to search for hidden chambers in Khafre’s pyramid at Giza in the late 1960s. None was discovered. This time around, after a 2016 experiment revealed anomalies that could indicate something behind its walls, scientists set out to image Khufu’s pyramid. To do that they placed various direction-sensitive muon detectors in the queen’s chamber and in an adjacent corridor within the pyramid and at its base on the north side, and analyzed the collected data every 2 to 5 months. As proof of principle, they confirmed the presence of three known large cavities: the queen’s and king’s chambers, and a long corridor that connects them, known as the grand gallery.

But, just above the grand gallery the researchers also spotted a new void area, they report today in Nature. The new cavity is nearly 8 meters high, 2 meters wide, and at least 30 meters long—like a cathedral, but much narrower—and it rises 20 meters above the ground in the pyramid’s core.

The scientists have “seen” the void using three different muon detectors in three independent experiments, which makes their finding very robust, says Lee Thompson, an expert in particle physics at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom who was not involved in the work. But the cavity’s detailed structure remains unclear: It might be one or many adjacent compartments, and could be horizontal or slanted.

At this stage, the cavity’s function can only be guessed. Because it is inaccessible, it probably isn’t a burial chamber, says archaeologist Mark Lehner, director of Ancient Egypt Research Associates in Boston, who was not involved in the research. “It’s not the ideal place to contain a body,” he says. It could have purely symbolic meaning, as a passage for the pharaoh’s soul, Tayoubi says.

Zahi Hawass, an Egyptologist based in Cairo who chairs the committee that reviewed the research project, cautions against calling the cavity a “secret room,” as pyramid builders often left large gaps between stone blocks, a construction strategy that makes the pyramid’s core look like Swiss cheese. The void might simply have served to relieve the weight of the stone blocks above the grand gallery to preserve it from collapse, like the five compartments, stacked on top of each other, that protect the king’s chamber in the same pyramid, Lehner says.

To answer questions about the cavity’s structure and function, the researchers hope to do more muon imaging experiments with finer resolution. This means placing more detectors inside and near the pyramid that collect data for longer—up to several years, Tayoubi says. Understanding the detailed structure of the cavity could also help determine how the Great Pyramid was built in the first place, whether using external ramps or internal passages through which stone blocks were carried to the higher levels of the structure.

Until then, the new finding, although “impressive,” doesn’t dramatically change the way we think about pyramids, Lehner says. But other scientists, such as particle physicist Guido Saracino of the University of Naples Federico II in Italy, are thrilled. According to Saracino, this work confirms that particle physics can have important practical applications, including archaeological surveys. And one day it may help scientists figure out how the ancient pyramids were built.