Self-driving vehicles are nothing new. Most major car manufacturers have been researching autonomous cars and trucks for years. Uber is hoping to use them to avoid paying for drivers. Lyft is hoping for the same. But there’s one company, in particular, that’s breaking away from the competition – Nuro. Unlike its competitors, Nuro doesn’t want to make passenger vehicles. Rather, it wants to put together a fleet of local delivery vehicles that transport packages, not people. Judging by the success of its recent pilot with Domino’s Pizza in Houston, it’s well on the way to succeeding. If you’re intrigued by the idea of getting your take-out delivered by a bot, read on for 20 things you didn’t know about Nuro.
1. It was formed in 2016
Nuro was formed in 2016 by Jiajun Zhu and Dave Ferguson. The pair had met while working on the mysterious Google autonomous vehicle project that eventually emerged as Waymo. As a principal software engineer and one of the project’s founding members, Zhu played a critical role in the project’s research and development. Ferguson joined the team several years after Zhu and served as a computer vision and machine learning lead. In 2016, they decided to leave the project to focus on developing their own autonomous car instead. The result was Nuro.
2. It unveiled its first product in 2018
In January 2018, Nuro revealed its first product to the public. The R1 was an electric self-driving delivery vehicle weighing around 1500 pounds, standing a smidge over 6 feet tall and measuring half the width of a normal car. Internally, it had space for around 12 grocery bags. Designed to carry cargo rather than passengers, the vehicle was initially piloted at a Fry’s Food and Drug store in Scottsdale, Arizona. Although it filled the brief, Nuro continued to tinker away at the premise, which ultimately culminated in the release of a second-generation product in 2020.
3. The R2 is a big step up
Nuro’s second-generation self-driving vehicle was unveiled in February 2020. Designed and assembled in partnership with Roush Enterprises, the R2 features a hardier, more robust body than its predecessor, making it better equipped to handle a variety of different terrains and weather conditions. Powered by a 31kWh battery, it features automotive lighting and signals and redundant braking and control systems. A sound generator and a collapsible front end have been incorporated for pedestrian safety. The cabin’s internal storage compartment features temperature control to keep perishable foods fresh. In total, the vehicle weighs around 2.5 tons, not including any additional weight added by its cargo.
4. It’s breaking new ground
Self-driving cars aren’t new. In fact, Nuro’s founders Zhu and Ferguson would never have got together had it not been for the autonomous vehicle project at Google. But whereas the majority of its competitors are focused on developing self-driving cars for passengers, Nuro has taken people out of the equation entirely. It doesn’t want to move people, it wants to transport packages. Pizzas, groceries, prescriptions, … if it can be wrapped in a box or popped in a bag, that’s exactly the kind of thing Nuro aims to ferry around in its self-driving bots.
5. It’s received U.S. DOT approval
Building self-driving bots that ferry goods rather than people may have raised a few eyebrows in the autonomous vehicle community, but Nuro’s decision has paid off. In February 2020, the R2 became the first driverless vehicle to receive approval from the US Department of Transportation, something that gives it exemption from federal safety requirements. Had Nuro been in the business of transporting people rather than packages, that approval would likely still be a long way off. Despite the approval, Nuro is still required to work within certain parameters: it can produce and deploy no more than 5000 vehicles over the two-year exception period, it will need to report information on the vehicle’s operation, and participate in outreach in the communities it will make deliveries.
6. Things are taking off in Houston
Over the past two years, Houston has been treated to a sneak peak at just how much life could change once Nuro’s autonomous cars take over the highways. Residents in selected areas have been treated to grocery deliveries and pharmaceutical deliveries by Nuro’s fleet since 2019, and from the feedback, they’re more than happy with the service.
7. It’s in the pizza game
In 2019, Nuro partnered up with Domino’s for a pizza delivery pilot in Houston. This April, the pilot finally began rolling out. Customers in the Woodland Heights neighborhood of the city who order their pizza during certain times can opt to have it delivered to their doorstep by a Nuro R2 robot. When a customer places their order, they’ll receive a unique PIN by text which they can then input on the vehicle’s touch screen to open its doors and retrieve their pizza. Speaking about the pilot, Dennis Maloney, Domino’s chief innovation officer, says “This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations. We look forward to seeing how autonomous delivery can work along with Domino’s existing delivery experts to better support the customers’ needs.”
8. It’s raised $1.5B in funding
While Nuro isn’t short on competitors, few have managed to attract the same level of investment. While the company was initially bootstrapped by Ferguson and Zhu, it’s had no problem in drawing investors since. According to CrunchBase, Nuro has so far managed to raise a total of $1.5 billion in funding over 5 rounds. Its Series A funding round, which closed in June 2017, secured $92 million from investors that included Greylock, Banyan, and NetEase. In 2019, Softbank Vision fund plowed a monster $940 million into the company in Series B funding. In November 2020, T. Rowe Price led a $500 million Series C round. Its latest round closed in March 2021.
9. It’s putting an end to delivery fees
During the pandemic, our reliance on home deliveries grew to all new heights. But after a while, all those tips and delivery charges soon add up. If Nuro’s plans for the future go as hoped, we could soon be kissing goodbye to any delivery fees at all. Rather than passing on costs to individual customers, Nuro aims to make its money charging the companies it delivers for instead. “We know that many underserved communities do not have access to grocery stores,” Zhu explains to Business Insider. “That’s why we built Nuro, to make it easier, more affordable, and accessible for people to get groceries, food, prescriptions, and other things they need.”
10. It employs over 800 people
When Nuro launched in 2016, its payroll consisted of a tiny team of researchers and developers. Since then, it’s grown hugely and now employs over 800 people. And it’s not done recruiting yet… according to its website, it’s actively looking for new talent to add to its books.
11. It’s a great place to work
If Nuro is actively recruiting for new staff to join its ranks, it shouldn’t have too many problems in attracting fresh talent.. not if that talent reads some of the stellar reviews from current and former employees over on Glassdoor, in any case. The company currently enjoys an approval rating of 4.1 out of 5. An impressive 75% of its employees would recommend working there to a friend, and a monster 85% approve of CEO, Jiajun Zhu.
12. It went into partnership with CVS in 2020
In May 2020, Nuro joined forces with CVS. The partnership marked Nuro’s introduction to healthcare. Shortly after the partnership was announced, Nuro began offering delivery of medications, prescriptions, and other items available through CVS stores to select neighborhoods in Houston. In a statement following the announcement of the new partnership, CEO Zhu said, “More than ever, we believe autonomous delivery can improve people’s everyday lives. Maintaining our health and safety has never felt so critical. It has become increasingly important for people — from senior citizens to adults to children — to be able to safely access prescriptions and other things they need without needing to leave their homes.”
13. It’s an award winner
Since its inception, Nuro has been winning accolades, titles and trophies left, right, and center. Just a small sample of its honors include being named Disruptor of the Year by Grocery Dive, ranking number 1 on Forbes’ ‘America’s Most Promising Artificial Intelligence Companies,’ and featuring in Silicon Valley Business Journal’s ‘Best Places to Work in the Bay Area,’ Fast Company’s ‘The Worlds Most Innovative Companies,’ and LinkedIn’s ‘The 50 hottest U.S. companies to work for now.’
14. It’s partnered with some big-name brands
Nuro’s partnership with Domino’s might be making the headlines at the moment, but pizzas aren’t the company’s only vertical. Since its inception, it’s steadily been accruing a good selection of big-name brand partnerships, and can now claim to work with Walmart, Kroger, Chipotle, CVS, and, of course, Domino’s.
15. It’s creating jobs, not destroying them
If there’s one criticism that Nuro is probably sick of hearing by now, it’s that self-driving commercial vehicles will end up robbing people of jobs. According to Nuro’s founders, that couldn’t be further from the truth. By their reckoning, delivery AV’s will actually create 3.4 million jobs between 2025 and 2035. The figure represents an increased need for grocery store employees to pick and pack deliveries, mechanics and technicians to assemble and maintain the fleet, software developers to improve driving systems, and a legion of fleet managers, safety inspectors, designers, and transportation planners.
16. It bought Ike in 2020
In December 2020, Nuro announced that it had acquired autonomous trucking start-up, Ike. As co-founder Dave Ferguson tells Tech Crunch, the acquisition will enable Nuro to leverage the technology that the smaller company has built and incorporate it into both its current and future applications. “I think it’s pretty clear just how incredible Ike’s team is and the quality of the tech that they built,” he says. “What is particularly compelling for Nuro is because Ike licensed Nuro’s tech stack a couple of years ago, all of the tech that they’ve built is on top of that stack, there’s a shared DNA. The tech that they built is also something that we can very readily transfer over and almost plug and play into our system.”
17. It’s reached Unicorn status
In 2019, Nuro gained entry into the Unicorn club, the exclusive group of startups who’ve reached a valuation of $1 billion. Since then, its value has continued to skyrocket, and it’s now estimated to be worth in the region of $5 billion.
18. Transportation is only the start of things
So far, all of Nuro’s efforts have centered on developing an autonomous car. But according to Vox, it’s unlikely they’ll stop there. Although they’ve released no details about what their next project is likely to be, their team of engineers with robotics, artificial intelligence, and self-driving experience suggests endless possibilities.
19. It’s committed to making a difference
As the number of hate crimes against members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community spirals, certain companies are doing what they can to stem the tide. In an article for Medium, CEO Zhu highlighted the numerous initiatives the company has launched to show solidarity with the AAPI community. These include hosting interactive listening sessions for employers to discuss the experiences of AAPI individuals, launching an internal podcast for employees to share their stories, offering resources to build awareness of AAPI civil rights history, and supporting organizations like Stop AAPI Hate.
20. It helped deliver essential supplies during COVID
When the COVID pandemic starting making its presence known in spring 2020, certain companies stepped up to the plate to do what they could to help. Among them was Nuro. As The Verge reports, the company used its fleet of self-driving robots to deliver medical supplies to two California stadiums that had been converted into overflow treatment centers for patients with COVID. Speaking to the Verge, co-founder Dave Ferguson explained that by providing “truly contactless delivery of goods,” Nuro could help keep health care workers in essential supplies like food, personal protective equipment (PPE), and clean linens. “That’s actually very beneficial for both parties [by] drastically reducing all possibility of contagion,” he said.