Nuro driverless vehicles become robot pack mules for California COVID-19 medical centers.

Nuro COVID-19 Coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic hit before self-driving vehicle technology was ready to play a significant role helping to keep goods and people moving safely amid stay-at-home rules. But Silicon Valley startup Nuro is deploying some of its small robotic delivery vehicles to haul critical supplies for medical staff and patients at two temporary California facilities.

Starting this week Nuro is making contact-free deliveries using its unmanned R2 vehicles to doctors and nurses staffing defacto hospitals set up at a former NBA arena in Sacramento and a converted multipurpose center in San Mateo, David Estrada, the company’s chief policy and legal officer, tells Forbes. The compact rectangular, electric vehicles are about half the size of a conventional car, resembling windowless, rolling toasters. They’re designed solely to haul goods, and have no seating or internal driving controls for humans.

“We’re carrying all the different kinds of materials that are needed–test diagnostic kits, pharmaceuticals, food, water, office supplies,” Estrada says. “There’s no physical contact with the vehicle. Workers can put materials inside them that can then be removed without making any physical contact.”

Initially, only a handful of Nuro’s 50 R2 vehicles are being used in the program, but the number could expand as needed, he said. Nuro is not being paid for its services.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the Mountain View, California-based company focused on using its low-speed, self-driving vehicles to deliver groceries, food and household merchandise to customers mainly in residential and suburban neighborhoods, not trying to create a robotaxi service such as those planned by Waymo and GM-backed Cruise. It’s raised about $1 billion led by SoftBank to make that happen. Current circumstances, however, are leading it to think about other ways to use the technology.

“We thought hard about how (and whether) we could contribute with our technology. And we realized that we could potentially use our R2 unmanned vehicles to provide truly contactless delivery of goods, where we remove any possible interaction between a driver dropping off goods and a person picking them up,” Nuro cofounder Dave Ferguson said in a blog post. “Through providing a contactless delivery solution with R2 in Sacramento and in San Mateo, we can help ensure healthcare workers have supplies they need at hand, saving them time while also helping foster the safety and health of both patients and staff.”

This month Nuro received permission from California to operate R2 vehicles on public roads in two San Francisco Bay Area communities, after also winning approval from U.S. regulators to test them on city streets in February. The R2 is designed and built in a partnership with Roush Enterprises and has a 360-degree vision system for monitoring other vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists and road conditions. Up to now, it’s mainly been operating grocery delivery programs in Arizona and Houston, but its new California initiative may eventually lead to other applications of the technology.

“Our mission is to accelerate the benefits of robotics for everyday life, and we aspire to one day make a massive positive contribution to the world through this technology. But we aren’t there yet,” Ferguson said. “We know robots aren’t going to solve this crisis. People are. Heroes are.”

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