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."
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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.