Self-Driving Vehicles Deliver Medical Supplies During Coronavirus Pandemic

Self Driving Vehicle

Recently, we reported that safer strategies were needed to transfer critical medical supplies during the COVID-19 outbreak. Many companies have resorted to contactless transfer where the supplies would be dropped off at a certain location. However, this does not guarantee the safety of the supplies.

Nuro is one of the best-funded self-driving vehicle startup companies in the United States. They have started to use their self-driving vehicle robots to transport food and medical supplies around a coronavirus stadium turned treatment center located in California.

According to president Dave Ferguson, the company realized that they could potentially use their R2 unmanned vehicles to help deliver goods without personal contact. The vehicles remove any possible interaction between a person picking up goods and a driver dropping them off. This could help reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Nuro policy chief David Estrada stated that the vehicles transport food, medical equipment, and supplies from the parking lot of the Sleep Treat Arena (the home of the Sacramento Kings) into the stadium. The vehicles are loaded and unloaded at designated locations without the need for humans to come into contact with each other. The vehicles automatically open and close their doors based on hand signals so that people do not need to touch the car.

The vehicles are capable of driving up to 25 miles per hour. However, once inside the stadium, the vehicles exercise an extreme level of caution and do not exceed 5 miles per hour. Nuro also plans to provide robot deliveries to a medical facility in the San Mateo County Event Center located in California.

Nuro Shifts Its Focus Among Pandemic

Nuro is currently limiting their service to the California area until they develop as a company and enhance their product. The self-delivering effort represents a shift away from the focus of the company, which was to deliver groceries from a Kroger subsidiary called Fry’s Food. The company first started testing their robot grocery delivery services in Arizona in late 2018. During that time, Nuro followed each delivery car with a chase car that was driven by a person to supervise the robot car and shut it down if it malfunctioned. Ferguson stated that he hoped to stop using the chase car by the middle of 2019.

Since then, the company stopped focusing on the intended delivery service from Tempe to Houston and started to develop the R2 robot. The federal government gave Nuro special examples to omit certain features in February, such as rear view mirrors, as long as the features were not needed in a self-driving capacity. This helps put the vehicles on public roads faster.

Nuro wanted to start using the R2 vehicle in Houston. However, the company decided to put those plans on hold to focus on the pandemic. According to Estrada, Nuro will not be doing any self-driving deliveries in Houston right now. The company will deliver groceries from Kroger stores in the Houston area using its modified Priuses with a person behind each wheel.

A Nuro spokesperson stated that Nuro’s goal is to roll out the use of the R2 vehicles in Houston in the upcoming weeks. Additionally, Nuro plans to expand its partners from Kroger to include Walmart and Domino’s. The spokesperson stated that they will initially start operations with a chase car and then move to full self-driving mode shortly after, as long as there are no problems.

Delivering medical supplies right now is a crucial service that many healthcare workers can benefit from as it reduces their exposure to possible contamination. However, the service's success remains unclear in a post-pandemic world. Nuro’s self-driving vehicles are too big to be operated inside hospitals. Because the cars only top out at 25 miles per hour, they may not be welcome on the road either. For these reasons, the potential for Nuro’s services outside of a pandemic may be small. Kiwibot, Nuro’s primary competition, features a smaller robot and they are also experimenting with medical supply deliveries.

Will Nuro Be Useful In The Future?

There is an unmet demand for grocery deliveries to people’s homes currently as many people are avoiding shopping in stores. Contactless deliveries offer a large selling point right now. This may continue to be the new normal for some people even after the pandemic is over. Between the two companies, Nuro’s vehicles are bigger and faster than other robots from delivery startups. This could allow them to deliver to areas where smaller robots cannot access. However, at 25 miles per hour, these vehicles would need to become more road compliant before becoming an option for a permanent service.

On the other hand, Nuro’s vehicles might be harder to engineer due to their larger size and speed compared to smaller vehicles. It may also be harder to operate them without supervision compared to sidewalk delivery services. Other companies, such as Kiwibot and Starship, have been allowing their robots to operate without supervision for over a year now. Nuro would like to do the same thing soon, but needs more time to ensure that the vehicles are safe.