Mountain View, CA-based startup Nuro is the brainchild of two former Google engineers, Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu (aka Jay-Z), who started conceiving and building their own take on autonomous vehicle delivery approximately 18 months ago. Now, their electric-powered autonomous SUV/van, which was unveiled this week and has been likened to a minimalist toaster on wheels, has netted the duo $92 million in Series A funding from Banyan Capital and Greylock Partners.
It’s easy to see the appeal of the vehicle that’s shape and features allow it to be catered to virtually any small-scale delivery service imaginable. Measuring in at the length and height of a traditional SUV but only 3.5 feet in width, the 1,500-pound vehicle with a payload of 250 pounds was designed to cater specifically to the local delivery and e-commerce sectors. With the growth of online commerce and companies such as UPS and FedEx still spending much of their revenue on paying human employees, the demand for a vehicle like Nuro’s R1 is certainly there.
“We realized we could make it possible to deliver anything, anytime, anywhere,” said co-founder Dave Ferguson. “We like to call it a local teleportation service.”
Having gained valuable experience as principal engineers on Google’s Waymo autonomous vehicle project, they have great insight as to what the autonomous delivery sector will require, and part of that means a customizable vehicle. Their project has lured away employees from tech and automotive giants Apple, Google, Tesla, Uber, GM and others, and the result of that team’s combined expertise is an autonomous vehicle that can be refrigerated, customized to carry hanging racks, or emptied out for maximum capacity.
We designed the R1 to be flexible, so it can be used for everything from your e-commerce packages to deliveries from a local dry cleaner, Ferguson says.
The glass windshield serves primarily to give the vehicle a sense of normalcy for other drivers, who will almost certainly be thoroughly confused by its unconventional design and lack of doors regardless. The vehicle’s skinny design and relatively slow rate of speed mean it can dodge obstacles without leaving its lane, reducing the potential for a collision. The R1 relies on LIDAR, cameras, radars, and sensors to navigate.
Still, even when cities and states eventually clear autonomous vehicles to operate, the R1 will require somebody to pick up the goods, as it currently lacks features necessary for doorstep delivery. It also is not suited to drive on highways, meaning it will be largely confined to urban environments and short distance delivery. With a permit from the California DMV, plans for public road testing are set for late this year. Regardless of its limitations, the funding suggests that the Nuro R1 fills a need in a marketplace that is increasingly impatient.
Consumers used to be okay with two-week paid shipping. It became two-week free delivery, followed by one week, two days, and the same day. Now, same-day delivery isn't fast enough for some customers, Ferguson said.