California start-up Nuro unveils autonomous delivery van, raises $92 million

Silicon Valley start-up Nuro said on Tuesday it raised $92 million to launch a self-driving delivery vehicle, joining automakers, shippers and a host of little-known companies developing autonomous vehicles for local commerce.

The company has joined the ranks of Uber, Waymo, BMW and other tech giants and car manufacturers pushing for autonomous driving. However, Nuro’s prototype car was built for an entirely different reason.

The company, co-founded by two former engineers from Google’s self-driving car project, Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu, opted to bypass the high-profile race for self-driving taxis to focus on goods delivery, which it says is easier to solve and will be quicker to market.

At about half the width of a traditional passenger sedan, Nuro’s vehicle, shaped like a tiny minivan, takes up less room on the road than traditional cars.  Nuro’s driverless vehicle has no doors or windows. The only defining feature of the vehicles is a glass windshield that’s been installed to stop the car from scaring other drivers on the road. Nuro further said that its primary purpose is to help retailers and companies improve their businesses through its autonomous vehicle.The company says this makes it safer on roads when interacting with pedestrians picking up their purchases.

Compartments built into its sides can hold about 10 shopping bags and can be configured to accommodate custom inserts such as lockers, heating or cooling elements or even a dry-cleaning rack.

The result of 18 months of development, the vehicle will operate in limited service by the end of this year, Ferguson said. The company is currently in talks with both big and small retailers, as well as with potential partners who could build the vehicle.

According to Nuro, their car could boost local businesses who are struggling to compete with the likes of Amazon. They also claim that their companies could do this while also helping to reduce accidents on the road.

The Series A funding – completed midway through 2017 but not disclosed until Tuesday – was led by private equity firm Banyan Capital and Greylock Partners, a venture firm, Nuro said.

Ferguson said such vehicles could be a “powerful tool” for local businesses such as convenience stores or shoe repair shops to get goods more quickly into the hands of their customers, who now demand even faster service and more convenience.

 

As the vehicles are not intended to be used on freeways, they can use shorter-range radar and lidar sensors than an autonomous vehicle driving at high speeds, Ferguson said.

Most of the focus thus far in self-driving technology has been on shuttling passengers without a driver, but analysts believe it will be nearly a decade before those autonomous vehicles roll out commercially beyond small-scale tests.

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