The US state of California will allow driverless car startup Nuro to begin testing autonomous delivery vehicles on public roads, the first ever such permit to be granted by the state, according to the startup.
The approval to test two driverless delivery vehicles, including the recently unveiled R2, comes as Californians follow a “shelter-in-place” order to assist in containing the highly contagious novel Coronavirus.
“Admittedly, while we have always believed that self-driving delivery vehicles would improve road safety and provide valuable convenience to consumers, we did not foresee our service helping to keep Americans safe from contagion,” chief legal and policy officer David Estrada said in a Medium blog post on the approval.
“But the COVID-19 pandemic has expedited the public need for contact-less delivery services. Our R2 fleet is custom-designed to change the very nature of driving, and the movement of goods, by allowing people to remain safely at home while their groceries, medicines, and packages, are brought to them.”
“The safety of the motoring public is the DMV’s top priority, and we do not give out these permits lightly,” California department of motor vehicles (DMV) director Steve Gordon said in a statement on the new permit.
“Nuro has met the DMV’s requirements to receive this permit to test their driverless delivery vehicles on California’s public roads.”
Under the permit, the vehicles are allowed to drive no faster than 35mph (56km/hr). Ironically, the shelter-in-place order will also mean there are less cars on the road as the R2 begins trials.
The Nuro R2 is essentially a robotic and refrigerated cupboard on wheels, designed to service customers of supermarkets and online retailers.
The California approval follows the grant of an exemption by the US department of transport allowing the vehicle to drive on public roads without certain features typically used by human drivers such as side mirrors and windshields.
In December, Nuro entered into a collaboration with US retail giant Walmart to run a pilot program in Houston.
“Our plan is to begin service by making free deliveries to select customers in Mountain View and the surrounding area,” says Estrada of the new permit.
“This will allow us to launch a formal delivery service in partnership with local brands and retailers. The next step in the California regulatory process will be to apply for a full statewide commercial deployment permit to bring our services to California residents throughout the state.
“We have always believed in the transformative power of autonomous vehicles, and in the climate of COVID-19 we understand their potential even more deeply. Putting our driverless R2 delivery vehicles on the road in California will be an important first for our company and the self-driving industry. But it is just a glimmer of what is to come,” says Estrada.
Testing of the R2 will begin in the Silicon Valley in service with partners, with the permit allowing the R2 to operate “within specific, designated parts of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, including portions of the cities of Atherton, East Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills, Los Altos, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and Woodside” according to the DMV website.
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Bridie Schmidt is lead reporter for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She specialises in writing about new technology and has been writing about electric vehicles for two years. She has a keen interest in the role that zero emissions transport has to play in sustainability and is co-organiser of the Northern Rivers Electric Vehicle Forum.