Jiajun Zhu, co-founder, and CEO of autonomous robotics company Nuro, joined blog line on Wednesday at TC Sessions: Mobility to discuss how the startup aims to revolutionize autonomous commercial delivery.
The company is best known for its adorable self-driving delivery vehicles, which travel on roads, not sidewalks, and are purpose-built to carry pizza and parcels rather than people. Nuro recently unveiled its third-generation electric delivery robot, the Nuro, which it is building in a new $40 million manufacturing facility and enclosed test track in southern Nevada.
Nuro, which has raised more than $2.13 billion since its inception in 2016, has locked up a range of commercial partners such as Domino’s, Kroger, FedEx, and 7-Eleven and operates and is testing in multiple states.
blog line Editor-in-Chief Matt Burns sat down with Zhu to discuss Nuro’s path to commercialization, the opportunities and challenges of AV delivery, and where the industry, and Nuro, are headed.
Here are three key points from their discussion.
Zhu hints LA could be Nuro’s next market.
Nuro currently operates and tests in California, Arizona, and Texas, with a focus on Houston and the San Francisco Bay Area as the company’s first markets, Zhu said. When asked which markets the startup is targeting next, Zhu said Nuro could announce that soon, but something tells us Los Angeles could be the closest target.
“We recently announced that we are also collecting and mapping data in LA,” Zhu said Wednesday. “Our focus right now is just trying to make the service good and make our customer happy and super excited in our existing markets.”
Nuro announced it had begun mapping in LA in April and said in a Medium message that the company would soon start testing autonomous vehicles in the region using its fleet of Toyota Prius vehicles.
“In the coming months, Angelenos can expect Nuro’s vehicles on public roads, and later this year, we will begin testing autonomous driving in specific LA County neighborhoods,” the company said in the post. “While we are not fully deployed in LA, the Nuro vehicles residents may see you are laying the foundation for our autonomous delivery service.”
Don’t get attached to the idea of Nuro as a delivery company
When Dave Ferguson, the president and co-founder of Nuro, and Zhu founded Nuro, it was believed that within 20 years, robots would be everywhere and help people live better lives. Focusing on delivery wasn’t so much about feeling that delivery was the main avenue but more that it would simply be one of the first.
“We looked at all these different industries and wondered which one will have the biggest impact on many people?” said Zhu. “We have this unique expertise and competence that allows us to build something potentially better than other companies. What product can have that impact in a reasonable timeline, not in 10 years, but something that we can see and use in a reasonable timeline?”
For now, the market opportunity for transporting goods across different retail branches makes Nuro a real business, not just a science experiment. Zhu said Americans make up to 100 billion daily trips to shop and run errands. Automation can save a lot of time for many people. But Nuro isn’t ruling out other ways to protect people’s time — Zhu said he’s especially interested in home robots.
“I want a robot that can fold my laundry in the future,” he said.
The benefits of collaborating with automotive OEMs on robots
Nuro is working with BYD North America on its latest-generation delivery robot, and Zhu said it was designed for production.
“This is, in our view, the first automotive-grade vehicle to be mass-produced,” Zhu said. “It has a much larger payload area based on all the feedback and input we’ve learned [from previous iterations]†
As Nuro works to get its self-driving technology up to speed, it is critical to produce vproducing with the support of a major automaker to scale up and become profitable.
Another advantage is the ability to include car-class speed and safety features. The Nuro can go up to 45 miles per hour, giving it ample geographic coverage but eliminating the need to drive on the highway. It also has safety features such as an airbag in the front of the vehicle, rather than on the inside so that it can protect vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. The Nuro also has active heating and cooling so that it can deliver a hot pizza and a cold beer at the same time, Zhu said.