Today Nuro formally launched, debuting a self-driving vehicle designed to transform commerce. Nuro’s fully autonomous vehicle reshapes the cost structure of goods transportation, creating a powerful platform for a variety of everyday goods and services. Nuro also announced today that it raised a $92 million Series A in two rounds, led by Banyan Capital and Greylock Partners, respectively.
“We started Nuro to make products that will have a massive impact on the things we do every day,” said Nuro Co-founder Dave Ferguson. “Our world-class software, hardware, and product teams have spent the past 18 months applying their expertise to deliver on this mission. The result is a self-driving vehicle designed to run your errands for you. It is poised to change the way that businesses interact with their local customers.”
Nuro’s new vehicle is designed specifically to move goods between and among businesses, neighborhoods and homes. The fully autonomous vehicle is unmanned and about half the width of a passenger car. It’s built with ultra-light materials and designed for neighborhoods. These combined design elements will make it one of the safest vehicles on the road. Additional details including images and video are available here.
“We aspire to lead a new wave of robotics applications that make life easier for everyone and give us more time to do things we love,” said Nuro Co-founder Jiajun Zhu. “We are living in extraordinary times where advancements in robotics, AI and computer vision are making it possible to imagine products and services that could not have existed just 10 years ago.”
Nuro will forge partnerships with businesses big and small seeking new ways to cost effectively transport goods and create new experiences for their customers.
Nuro combines software and hardware expertise to design and build products that accelerate the benefits of robotics for everyday life. Nuro’s first product is a self-driving vehicle designed for local goods transportation. The company is led by world-renowned experts in robotics, artificial intelligence and computer vision. Privately held, Nuro powers partnerships with local businesses seeking new ways to cost effectively transport goods and create new experiences for their customers. For more information, visit www.nuro.ai.A new startup that proposes a different spin on autonomous transportation came out of stealth today. The company, called Nuro.ai, 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.ai isn’t focused on reconfiguring robot taxis or autonomous trucks, but on designing a new type of vehicle altogether.
Nuro is focused on deliveries, specifically the kind that are low-speed, local, and last-mile: groceries, laundry, or your take-out order from Seamless. The startup thinks that automating these services could help shoulder the sharp increase in last-mile deliveries, while also reducing traffic accidents and boosting local businesses who are looking for ways to thrive and compete in the age of Amazon.
And their timing couldn’t be better. The converging trends of robotics, self-driving cars, and e-commerce are leading to an explosion of interest in the last-mile delivery challenge. Consumers are ordering more items online than ever before, and there is a growing expectation for shorter and shorter delivery windows. A recent study by McKinsey put the global price tag of last-mile delivery every year at around $86 billion, with staggering year-over-year growth rates.
While it works out the kinks in its drone delivery project, Amazon is also considering using self-driving robots, having just filed a patent for an autonomous ground vehicle. Toyota unveiled its bizarre “e-palette” concept at CES this year. Meanwhile, Starship Technologies has sidewalk-only delivery robots making trips in California, Washington, DC, Germany, and the UK. Last year, Ford Motor Company teamed up with Domino’s to deliver pizza via a self-driving car. And later today, a Northern Californian startup called Udelv is demonstrating what it calls “the world’s first public-road autonomous delivery test,” in which a self-driving van (with human safety driver) will deliver goods from the high-end Draeger’s Market chain in the Bay Area city of San Mateo.
Nuro is taking a different approach. Rather than dress up a Lexus crossover or a Ford Focus in self-driving hardware and throw some grocery sacks inside, their engineers have built something entirely new from the ground up. At first glance, Nuro’s R1 prototype (just an internal nickname and not the official name) looks like a giant lunchbox on wheels, or maybe even a mobile toaster. If anything, Nuro’s first vehicle looks more like the original “Firefly” prototypes that Google officially retired last summer than anything you’d see on the road today.
But a closer inspection reveals that the “handle” on the roof is actually a platform for the vehicle’s sensor array, which includes LIDAR, cameras, and radars. And a peek through the windshield will also reveal the complete absence of traditional controls like steering wheels, foot pedals, and gear shifts. There’s no driver seat because humans were not meant to operate this vehicle.
That said, Nuro is designing its vehicles for remote operation, placing it alongside startups such as Phantom Auto and others that are working on remotely operated driverless vehicles. But real-time teleoperation has its challenges, such as signal latency and other issues. To gain enough confidence for public deployment, Nuro is using a fleet of six self-driving cars to collect data and optimize routes, which then gets fed into its prototype vehicles. Nuro has received a permit from the California DMV and plans to start testing on public roads later this year. But the company will need sign-off from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before it can operate in states where regulation prohibits completely human-free driving.
“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.”
There are some challenges to Nuro’s business model, specifically how customers will receive their deliveries from the self-driving delivery pod. No driver means no one to ring your doorbell or trudge up four flights of stairs to hand over your pad thai. Ferguson says he envisions customers using — what else? — an app to inform them when the vehicle has arrived in front of their building or in their driveway. They would then be given a code that pops open the vehicle’s side hatches so they can retrieve their items. They are also considering using facial recognition technology. But what’s to prevent people from stealing someone else’s deliveries? There are still a lot of details that need to be worked out, Ferguson acknowledged.
Ferguson and Zhu are two guys who know more than a little about autonomous driving. Zhu was one of the founding engineers of Google’s self-driving team, while Ferguson was a leading software engineer on the team. Both left Google at the same time as its chief technology officer Chris Urmson, who has since gone on to start his own self-driving company, Aurora.
Aside from a brief internship at Intel, Zhu had spent much of his career at Google and was the self-driving team’s principal software engineer from 2008-2016. Ferguson came to Google in 2011 after a stint at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, which has been at the forefront of the autonomous driving revolution. He served as the principal computer-vision and machine-learning engineer at Google before leaving with Zhu in late 2016 to start Nuro. Since then, they’ve attracted talent from the likes of Google, Apple, Tesla, Waymo, and GM to build out their team.
Nuro has already raised $92 million in two rounds of fundraising and is in talks with a number of retailers and delivery providers about possible partnerships. A likelier outcome is Nuro gets quickly bought up by a company like Amazon. The race to develop self-driving technology has sparked a furious round of mergers and acquisitions over the past few years, the rate of which has yet to subside.
Ferguson said that he hopes Nuro’s fresh approach to self-driving — focusing on delivering goods rather than people — hopefully means that Nuro will stand out from the pack.
“Almost all of the big players in self-driving passenger transportation are really, really focused on that application because for many of them it’s an existential threat,” Ferguson said. “And most of them feel that goods transportation is going to be a follow-on application. For us, we felt, in and of its own right, it was an important enough problem and one that we could make real headway on earlier than passenger transportation.”
He added, “That makes us sound smarter or more cunning than we are … It makes sense for them to be focused on that, but it also leaves open a pretty big opportunity to go after this other area.”
Perhaps the clearest sign that self-driving vehicles are coming to a road near you is that the startup boom has settled down. Nearly all the outfits that formed to crack robo-driving problem have paired up with the big automakers that can provide the manufacturing muscle they need to go big: Argo AI with Ford, Cruise with General Motors, Waymo with Fiat Chrysler, Aurora with Volkswagen and Hyundai. The startups that are entering the space at this late date are focused on various niches the new industry has created: improving lidar and radar sensors, compressing mapping data, and so forth.
Nuro.ai sits somewhere in between: It 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 ridesharing, 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.
The Nuro humans outside the vehicles, though, come with hard-to-beat pedigrees. Co-founder Dave Ferguson started out at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, helped build the car that won the 2007 Darpa Urban Challenge, and joined Google’s self-driving car team (now known as Waymo) in 2011. Jiajun Zhu was a founding member of Google’s effort. They left Google in mid-2016, when they decided to do something new. (It was a time of exodus: Project lead Chris Urmson left around the same time, to start Aurora. Anthony Levandowski, another founding member, had resigned a few months earlier to start Otto, which he soon sold to Uber, and got himself involved in a brutal lawsuit.)
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.
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.
As Waymo, Uber, General Motors, and other giants of the field stomp their way to deploying driverless cars for human transportation, Nuro hopes it has found a niche that will keep it safe—at least, until it has grown big enough to compete on its own.