Nuro had been running a relatively small delivery pilot to six ZIP codes in Houston in collaboration with the grocery chain Kroger and CVS Pharmacy. As the pandemic led to food insecurities in many areas of the sprawling metropolis, and especially in lower-income neighborhoods, Nuro upped their area of activity from six to thirty ZIP codes.  This win-win situation meant that many families and individuals needing food and medicine during lockdown were able to have contactless delivery.
There are three things that may make this a turning point for the self-driving startup. First, this greatly expanded activity will provide the company with valuable data and experience. Second, the greater activity and presence, along with the strain of the pandemic, has led to changing attitudes towards robot home delivery. Third, Nuro has the unique position of being the only self-driving company to be given a regulatory exemption from federal safety standards for motor vehicles. This means that for their purpose-built delivery robot, the R2, they will have a regulatory and societal environment that is conducive to much wider and involved testing.
The pandemic has provided a perfect use-case for Nuro. This is good for Nuro, of course, but also for proponents of self-driving. Autonomy has suffered lately as an industry-wide recognition of the deep challenges involved have sunk in. The R2 is perfectly suited for delivery and avoids many of the difficulties that arise for larger vehicles carrying people and traveling at higher speeds. The pandemic has provided ample need, a need which has unsurprisingly affected the poorest the most, and it appears that Nuro, though not yet using the R2 at scale, can meet that need in a way that demonstrates some of the advantages of self-driving that people have long hoped for. This may well renew hope that autonomy can not only be economically viable but can have some of the social benefits many have expected it would bring.
Written by Joshua Bronson, RISE Mobility & Systems.
1. 2020-08-05 How Robots Are Helping One Texas Company Thrive During the Pandemic
2. 2020-09-14 Self-Driving Startup Tackles Food Deserts
3. 2020-07-17 Despite High Hopes, Self-Driving Cars Are ‘Way in the Future’