In February 2020, Mountain View, California based Nuro AI became the first American autonomous vehicle developer to be given exemptions for testing on public roads without the need to have controls for human operators. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) overturned existing rules that require drivers to have ultimate control of the autonomous vehicle, allowing Nuro’s second generation test platform, the Nuro R2, to take to public roads. NHTSA and the DOT capped the top speed of Nuro’s vehicles 25 mph.
On April 7th 2020, Nuro received a second permit, this time granted by the State of California, allowing the company to test their R2 vehicles on certain public roads in sections of nine cities within Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Testing will begin once the COVID-19 lockdown is lifted.
R2 A Significant Upgrade
Nuro’s R2 vehicle, developed in partnership with Livonia, Michigan based Roush Enterprises, builds on the company’s R1 design for electric container vehicles designed to transport and deliver groceries. The R2 began testing at the end of February, joining the fleet of Toyota Priuses that Nuro uses for autonomous vehicle testing.
The R2 is a significant upgrade on the R1, weighing nearly twice as much at 1150 Kg to the R1’s 680 Kg, and designed for a payload of up to 190 Kg (418 lbs.). The R2 is advertised as an SAE level 4 (highly automated) vehicle. Nuro states that because the R2’s ADS relies on advanced machine learning to improve its level of safety, the R2 must be exposed to new driving scenarios.
Nuro’s existing testing programs have consisted of operating its Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) compliant vehicles on public roads autonomously, while operating the R2X in its private test track. Nuro argued that this testing led to consistent improvements in the ADS’s driving performance, but no additional safety gains would accrue from its existing track based research and testing programs.
The NHTSA and State of California exemptions are a step in the right direction, and an important milestone, for the development of SAE 4 level automation on the road. For the NHTSA exemption process, not all test conditions, including fuel tank loading, driver’s seat positioning, steering wheel adjustment and image response time procedure, were not initially met by Nuro. Modifications followed. Afterward, authorities were convinced that Nuro’s autonomous driver system has the required built-in redundancies, and that its sensor array is rugged enough to mitigate any issues.
Overall, this development will be but a first step in the rise of last-mile delivery robotics. Nuro has relationships with Domino’s Pizza, grocer Kroger and retail giant Walmart. Under the NHTSA exemption, which lasts two years, Nuro is allowed to produce and use up to 5,000 vehicles, but this is significantly more than the company’s current fleet size. To compare, Starship Technologies (the leader in outdoor robot delivery), has under 500 robots, and plans to have an installed base of 5,000 by 2021.
“The NHTSA and State of California exemptions are a step in the right direction, and an important milestone, for the development of SAE 4 level automation on the road. “
Softbank Investment Key
Nuro has made much progress and is a leader in the autonomous driving space, particularly in terms of enabling technology. While the California DMV has hundreds of permit holders for testing autonomous vehicles, the recent exemption and Nuro’s licensing of its software to other developers like autonomous truck developer Ike mark it out.
Another key differentiator between Nuro and other autonomous vehicle solutions provides is Nuro’s backing to the tune of US$ 940 million by Japanese conglomerate Softbank. But Nuro is far from the only robot-related recipient of Softbank’s largesse. Both through acquisitions by Softbank Robotics and investments via Softbank’s Vision Fund, Softbank has spent over US$ 4 billion on robot companies and robotics enabling technology providers.
As part of the Strategic Technologies research team at ABI Research, Rian Whitton provides consulting and analysis covering robotics, automation, intelligent systems, artificial Intelligence and machine learning. He has also written actively on the commercial application of unmanned aerial vehicles. Whitton has also been an editor and contributor to the Conflict Comment, a media outlet that focuses on international relations. He holds a Master’s degree in Science & Security from King’s College London, where he focused on the intersection of technology and defense. Subjects of interest included lethal autonomous weapons, unmanned systems, aerospace innovation, nuclear deterrence and how it relates to international affairs.
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