Two grocery stores in the fast-growing city of Houston, Texas, will be getting a new robot delivery service courtesy of Nuro, the self-driving startup founded by two ex-Google engineers. The service is an expansion of the partnership between Nuro and grocery giant Kroger that started last year in Scottsdale, Arizona.
At first, groceries will be delivered via Nuro’s fleet of self-driving Toyota Prius vehicles, and each car will have a safety driver behind the wheel. But later this year, the company plans on deploying its custom-built R1 driverless delivery vehicles, which are currently being used to deliver groceries in Arizona. (Old self-driving heads will recognize a passing resemblance to the original “Firefly” prototypes that Google retired in 2017.)
Only two Kroger stores are involved in the experiment, and customers can place orders via Kroger.com or on the mobile app. Grocery orders can be scheduled for same-day or next-day delivery. The delivery fee is $5.95 per order, and there is no minimum order amount.
The news is coming on the heels of a nearly $1 billion investment in Nuro from Japanese tech company SoftBank. It was a huge vote of confidence for one of the lesser known startups working on self-driving technology. Formed in 2016 by a pair of ex-Google self-driving engineers, Nuro has set itself apart by focusing on food delivery rather than people moving.
Nuro is one of the few companies to be operating fully driverless vehicles on public roads today. Its R1 vehicle is about half as wide as a compact sedan, shorter than most cars, and it has no room inside for human passengers or drivers. Nuro has built six of these vehicles so far, and it plans to use the cash infusion to manufacture more. It also has plans to increase its test fleet of standard cars fitted with self-driving hardware and software to about 50, which it will operate on public roads in California, Arizona, and Texas with safety drivers behind the wheel.
The R1 may not have room for a human driver, but the vehicles aren’t completely unmonitored. Nuro uses chase vehicles with human drivers and remote technology to monitor each driverless vehicle as it makes its deliveries.