Nuro, the autonomous delivery company, announced its third-generation autonomous vehicle with a host of new improvements, including a bizarre-looking external airbag for pedestrians.
The company, which has a fleet of driverless delivery pods scurrying through the Southwest, says its new vehicle will have twice the cargo space as the second-generation R2 robot. It will also include modular inserts and new temperature-controlled compartments to keep food warm or cold, depending on the need.
Nuro, which is valued at $8.6 billion, was founded in 2016 by Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu, two veterans of the Google self-driving car project that would go on to become Waymo. It is one of the few companies to be operating fully driverless vehicles — that is, vehicles without safety drivers behind the wheel — on public roads today. Its second-generation R2 vehicle is about half as wide as a compact sedan, shorter than most cars, and there’s no room inside for human passengers or drivers.
For the new vehicle, the external airbag is certainly the most eye-catching new feature. A rendering of the airbag makes it look like an inflated mattress strapped to the front end of the vehicle. Since the vehicle is not intended for human drivers or occupants, Nuro installed the airbag on the outside for pedestrians in case of a collision.
It’s the latest attempt by an autonomous vehicle company to account for the safety of people outside of the vehicle, such as pedestrians and cyclists. And while it may look silly on the surface — and who knows whether an external airbag will make a difference when the vehicle is traveling over 25mph — the fact that Nuro is thinking about how people interact with self-driving cars is refreshing.
Not to sound like a broken record, but Americans have traded sedans and small cars for huge trucks and SUVs, and the auto industry is responding by producing vehicles with higher carriages and larger front-ends. This has helped fuel a rash of pedestrian deaths, which are up 50 percent over the last decade.
Vehicle makers have to account for the safety of the occupants in their vehicles but are not rated by the government on the basis of pedestrian safety. The Biden administration has called for an overhaul of the government’s five-star safety rating — the New Car Assessment Program — to include ratings for pedestrian impacts.
Autonomous vehicles are held up as a potential solution to the rise in traffic fatalities, but there have been many several instances of crashes, and at least one pedestrian death, associated with self-driving cars.
Nuro says the new airbag-sporting vehicle will go into production at the company’s manufacturing facility that is still under construction in Nevada. The vehicle’s powertrain, which includes the electric motor and battery, will be made in the US by BYD, a Chinese company that is one of the largest manufacturers of electric vehicles in the world. The factory is expected to be fully operational later this year.
The company is relatively unknown compared to its rivals in the autonomous vehicle space, mostly because of its focus on delivery rather than human passengers. Still, Nuro has made incredible progress on the regulatory front, becoming the first company to receive a special exemption from certain federal safety requirements and recently getting the green light to charge money for its deliveries in California.
The company says it expects to eventually scale its business to include “millions” of customers, though it is not providing a timeline for when it hopes to achieve that.