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Self-Driving Toasters Invade Houston

5,000 adorable robo-pods will deliver groceries, pizzas and takeout orders.
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They look like giant toasters on wheels. Soon as many as 5,000 of them will be delivering meals, pizzas and groceries in Houston.

Nuro delivery pod   (Images: Nuro)

They are driverless pods that belong to Nuro Inc. The California-based robotics company wants to save us the time we spend running short errands around town by having its electric shuttles make those deliveries for us.

Nuro’s R2 pod is about the size of a subcompact crossover vehicle but is half as wide. It has gullwing doors, temperature control for its cargo bays and a battery big enough to run all day.

The pods sport a large windshield, although there is no room for a driver inside—or controls for a human to use. They guide themselves with a combination of cameras, lidar and radar.

A Robotic First

The R2 is the first entirely autonomous vehicle approved by the U.S. to saunter around town on public streets.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is still sitting on requests for waivers from General Motors and others to do the same.

NHTSA’s safety rules assume a driver will be piloting the vehicle. Accordingly, most of the agency’s standards address such matters as steering wheels, foot pedals, rearview mirrors, windshield wipers and headlights—none of which is necessary for an autonomous vehicle.

Not So Fast

NHTSA did attach some strings to the Nuro waiver. For one thing, an R2 isn’t allowed to travel at speeds greater than about 25 miles per hour. The pods also will be permitted to drive only on secondary streets in specific neighborhoods whose residents are okay with robots buzzing around. There will be no highway trips or gallivanting across town.

Nor will the shuttles be entirely on their own. Nuro says all R2s will be continually monitored by human observers, who can take over and operate the vehicle remotely if necessary.

The pods have individual cargo areas that can be opened by customers who use a smartphone app and a special code associated with their delivery order.

Ready to Roll

Nuro, which was formed in 2016, began conducting restricted tests with the R2 in mid-2018. Grocery chain operator Kroger has been an early partner. Last year Domino’s Pizza and Walmart announced they would be part of Nuro’s tests in Houston.

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