Autonomous delivery startup Nuro is allowed to launch commercial driverless services on public roads in California — the first company to clear this hurdle — after receiving a permit from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.
Nuro, which was founded in June 2016 by Google alums Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu, plans to start commercial delivery operations early next year. The so-called Autonomous Vehicle Deployment permit will allow Nuro to operate commercial services — meaning it can charge for delivery — in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The intention is to start with its autonomous Toyota Prius vehicles in one city and one partner in the early part of 2021, Nuro’s chief legal and policy officer David Estrada said. The company will eventually transition to its purpose-built R2 delivery bots for its commercial service as well as add more partners and expand geographically.
While Nuro wouldn’t name the partner or city, it’s worth noting that the company is headquartered in Mountain View and has previously expressed a desire to start operations close to its main office.
The announcement caps a milestone year for Nuro, which earlier Wednesday announced it had acquired self-driving trucks startup Ike Robotics. Nuro also raised another $500 million, which pushed its post-money valuation to $5 billion, and secured some key state and federal regulatory victories.
Nuro has followed a long and winding path to secure the deployment permit. In 2017, the California DMV, the agency that regulates autonomous vehicles in the state, issued Nuro an AV testing permit that required the company to have a human back up driver behind the wheel. Initially, the company used modified Toyota Prius sedans for testing as well as for pilot grocery deliveries in Arizona and Texas.
The company transitioned in December 2018 to the R1, the first step toward a vehicle designed exclusively for packages. Its second-generation, vehicle called the R2, was introduced in February 2020. The R2, which was designed and assembled in the U.S. in partnership with Michigan-based Roush Enterprises, is equipped with lidar, radar and cameras to give the “driver” a 360-degree view of its surroundings. Importantly, Nuro received a driverless exemption from NHTSA for its R2 vehicle. The exemption allows the vehicle to operate even though it doesn’t have side-view mirrors, a windshield and a rear-view camera that shuts off when driving forward.
Nuro received in April 2020 a permit from the CA DMV to test driverless vehicles, which meant it could finally put its R2 delivery bots on public roads. While dozens of companies have an active permit with the CA DMV to test autonomous vehicles with a human safety driver, AutoX, Cruise, Nuro, Waymo and Zoox are the only companies allowed to test driverless vehicles on California’s public roads.
Still, Nuro wasn’t able to charge for delivery until it received the deployment permit that was issued Wednesday.
Nuro has a slightly cleaner path to commercial operations than autonomous vehicle companies aiming to shuttle people in robotaxi-type operations. Commercial ride-hailing services using driverless vehicles also have to secure permits from the California Public Services Commission to be able to shuttle passengers. Another additional permit by the CPUC is required to charge for rides.