Nuro, the autonomous vehicle startup founded by two ex-Google engineers, is using its small fleet of road-legal delivery robots to transport medical supplies around two California stadiums that have been converted into treatment facilities for people stricken with COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced self-driving car companies in California to temporarily shutdown their operations and ground their fleets, thanks to “shelter-in-place” orders that ban nonessential transportation. But Nuro realized it could still play a role in delivering goods for health care workers by using its R2 prototype vehicles. These lightweight electric vehicles are built from the ground up to be completely driverless and, with slight alterations, could also provide contactless delivery, said Dave Ferguson, co-founder and president of Nuro.
“Robots are not solving this crisis,” Ferguson said in an interview with The Verge. But by providing “truly contactless delivery of goods” Nuro can help provide essential supplies to frontline health care workers who are fighting the virus. “That’s actually very beneficial for both parties [by] drastically reducing all possibility of contagion,” he said.
Nuro’s robots are ferrying food, personal protective equipment (PPE), clean linens, and other supplies to workers at two facilities in California: the Event Center in San Mateo and the Sleep Train Arena, which is typically home to the Sacramento Kings. Both facilities have been converted into field hospitals to handle the overflow of patients who have contracted COVID-19.
Human workers load and unload the vehicles at either end of the route. Typically, Nuro’s vehicles require the delivery recipient to input a code on a touchscreen to make the doors open. But to make it truly contactless, workers are only required to give a thumbs-up to the vehicle’s camera and a Nuro operator monitoring the live feed will open the doors remotely.
One of Nuro’s vehicles will be operating inside the Sleep Train Arena, making deliveries to workers at either end of the facility. “The transport that we’re doing reduces the amount of transport that otherwise would need to be done by the healthcare staff,” Ferguson said. “This is where all the COVID patients are, so this is effectively a very high risk exposure area.”
The vehicles at both locations are on fixed, preplanned routes on private roads, which minimizes the chance they’ll encounter anything too complicated. While they are capable of traveling up to 25 mph, the R2 vehicles will be limited to 5 mph outdoors and 2.5 mph indoors.
This represents a significant shift to Nuro’s typical operations, which are focused on grocery and food delivery in Arizona and Texas. In addition to a small number of R2 vehicles, the company also conducts deliveries using its fleet of retrofitted Toyota Priuses with two safety drivers in each. But due to social distancing rules, the company is only using one safety driver per vehicle for its delivery routes in Arizona and Texas, and is mostly operating its vehicle manually. Testing in California has been temporarily halted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and shelter-in-place rules.
The company also has the distinction of being the first autonomous vehicle operator to receive a federal exemption to mass-produce driverless vehicles without traditional controls like steering wheels or sideview mirrors. Nuro also was recently approved to test its driverless delivery robots on public roads in California — becoming only the second company to receive such a permit.
The pandemic has made it an extremely precarious time for self-driving car companies, especially those that have been unable to secure enough funding to sustain their operations through an extended shutdown. But Ferguson said that Nuro has so far been able to avoid layoffs and furloughs by developing tools that allow its operations team to “contribute remotely from their homes,” as well as investing in simulation that allows it to continue running its vehicle tests in a virtual world. (The company’s nearly $1 billion from SoftBank probably didn’t hurt to have either.)
“We’re feeling pretty good about this this being within our control,” Ferguson said, “and it’s sort of up to us to execute and make it happen.”