By Dave Ferguson, Co-Founder, Nuro —
First Autonomous Vehicle to Receive USDOT Approved Exemption
On Feb. 6, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) approved a regulatory exemption for R2, Nuro’s second-generation vehicle. As the first company to be granted approval for a self-driving vehicle exemption, it’s an important moment for Nuro and a milestone for the industry. Under Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao’s leadership, DOT is advancing a future of improved safety, mobility, and commerce.
This decision provides regulatory certainty for Nuro to operate our second-generation self-driving vehicle, built to carry packages instead of people. We custom-designed R2 to enrich local commerce with last-mile delivery of consumer products, groceries, and hot food from local stores and restaurants. With its specially designed size, weight, pedestrian-protecting front end, operating speed, electric propulsion, and cautious driving habits, R2 is ready to begin service as a socially responsible neighborhood vehicle that you can trust. In the coming weeks, R2 will begin public road testing to prepare for its first deliveries to customers’ homes with our partners in Houston, Texas. With this vehicle, we can also bring our service to new cities, so more Americans can benefit from safe, efficient, convenient on-demand deliveries.
R2: The Next Generation of Local Commerce
When we founded Nuro, we set out to build a new class of vehicle, designed purely for transporting things instead of people. A self-driving vehicle, but not just a driver-less vehicle — a passenger-less vehicle. A zero-occupant vehicle.
We were convinced that such a class of vehicle had the potential to be safer than passenger vehicles: more nimble, narrower, and better able to prioritize the well-being of other road users. And by building such a vehicle we could also lower vehicle cost, improve the customer experience, and accelerate autonomous technology deployment by solving problems jointly through both hardware and software development.
That journey for us began with our R1 robot, which launched in Scottsdale, Arizona in December 2018 with Kroger — the first-ever unmanned delivery service for the general public. R1 was a success for our team, our partners, and the thousands of customers we provided deliveries to over the last year. We learned that this new class of vehicle could provide both convenience and safer streets for families and communities.
With our second-generation vehicle, R2, we wanted to retain our unique design and the key characteristics — including zero-emission propulsion and a magical customer experience — that made R1 a success. We also wanted to extend the vehicle’s lifespan, add more cargo space, and handle more varied conditions at a greater, city-wide scale.
Rather than custom-making each individual vehicle, as we had with R1, we partnered with Roush, a full-service product development supplier based in Michigan, to design and assemble high-quality vehicles in the United States. We developed a more durable custom vehicle body, enabling us to handle inclement weather. We updated our sensor array with both supplier-provided and custom, in-house sensors. We added two-thirds more compartment space without increasing vehicle width, and we introduced temperature control to help keep food fresh. R2 uses a custom battery solution that nearly doubled the R2 battery size, enabling all day operation.
Exemptions for a Safer Vehicle
R2 also features safety innovations designed to keep what’s outside the vehicle safer than what’s inside. To get the most benefit from these innovations, we applied for a regulatory exemption from NHTSA.
Federal vehicle standards were written for today’s passenger cars and trucks. But at Nuro, we’re building something entirely different: a zero-occupant vehicle. The DOT exemption process is designed to accommodate unforeseen technologies like R2 that can enhance safety.
Today’s decision shows that “exemption” can mean more safety. It allows us to replace the mirrors relied on by human drivers with cameras and other sensors. We can round the edges of the vehicle body to take up less road space, and make it safer for those around us. In addition, we can remove the windshield meant to let human drivers see out and keep passengers in — instead using a specially designed panel at the vehicle’s front that absorbs energy, better protecting pedestrians. And we won’t have to ever turn off the rearview cameras that help R2 see (part of a rule meant to avoid distracting human drivers), providing a constant 360-degree view with no blind spots.
This exemption comes after a long process that demonstrated the safety of Nuro’s vehicle and DOT’s commitment to public safety. It follows three years of discussion with the agency, detailed submissions of information on Nuro’s technology, and supportive comments from leaders in the communities where we operate, our long-standing partners, and our fellow citizens concerned about road safety. DOT has shown that safety and innovation can advance together, and that they will act to address regulations that stand in the way.
What Comes Next
We are excited to begin public road testing with R2 in Houston in the coming weeks. This will provide additional valuable real-world data on how people react to our delivery vehicles. The launch of R2 marks a new phase for Nuro, as we work towards deploying our delivery services at city scale in Houston with multiple partners.
DOT has taken a critical first step in enabling safety innovations, but exemptions are a temporary fix for an industry that’s reimagining what it means to drive. Moving forward, we must modernize the existing regulations that never envisioned a vehicle without a driver or occupants, and everyone in the industry must work to ensure self-driving technology is tested and deployed in the safest possible vehicles.
We’re eager to work with DOT to build on the precedent of today’s decision to design regulations specifically for this new class of zero-occupant delivery vehicles, ensuring everyone in the industry can meet sensible standards that promote safety and provide certainty for manufacturers. The agency has already begun the process, and we look forward to supporting their ambitious agenda, including beginning rulemaking on zero-occupant vehicles this year.
The R2 second generation Nuro vehicle represents the culmination of many years of hard work for our team, and it represents another beginning. This exemption and the second-generation Nuro vehicle are “firsts” for the autonomous vehicle industry, and they will be followed by many more. We look forward, together with others in the industry, to ushering in new ways to provide transportation and safer streets for all Americans.
Or join us as we continue to deliver ground breaking technology that is being put into real use, today.
About The Author
Dave Ferguson is the Co-founder and President of Nuro, a technology company focused on accelerating the benefits of robotics for everyday life. Nuro has developed and deployed a new type of unmanned self-driving vehicle, the R1, custom-built to transport goods.
Dave has worked on robotics and machine learning for nearly 20 years. Before founding Nuro, Dave was a principal engineer on Google’s self-driving program, now known as Waymo, serving as the machine learning and computer vision team lead. He also led the planning group for Carnegie Mellon University’s team that won the DARPA Urban Grand Challenge in 2007. One of his algorithms is used for long range autonomy on NASA’s Mars Rovers. He also previously conducted robotics research at Intel and developed machine learning trading strategies at Two Sigma, an investment firm.
Dave holds an MS and PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon and a Bachelor’s in Computer Science and Mathematics from the University of Otago. Dave has been awarded over 100 patents.
Nuro is a robotics company transforming local commerce through driverless delivery. The company develops and operates a fleet of self-driving vehicles that deliver local goods of all kinds, from dinner to dry cleaning. Nuro’s service helps merchants deliver goods to customers quickly, affordably, and safely. Led by world-renowned experts in robotics, artificial intelligence, computer vision, and product design, the company began making driverless deliveries to the public in 2018. Nuro has raised more than $1 billion in financing from investors including Softbank and Greylock and shares partnerships with leading brands such as Walmart, Domino’s and Kroger. For more information, visit https://nuro.ai.