Autonomous delivery vehicle set to roll after getting US approval

Nuro R1 driverless delivery vehicle

Silicon Valley startup Nuro said Thursday it obtained US regulatory authority to operate a fully autonomous delivery vehicle and would begin testing it in Texas in the coming weeks.

The California-based firm said it was the first company granted approval for a self-driving vehicle exemption by the US Department of Transportation.

Nuro said its R2 vehicle, designed to operate without any human driver, would be partnering with local businesses for "last-mile delivery of consumer products, groceries, and hot food from local stores and restaurants."

The move comes amid initiatives around the world on autonomous vehicles for transporting both people and goods.

Former Google car unit Waymo has begun limited rideshare testing without any drivers in Arizona. And General Motors unit Cruise has unveiled its autonomous shuttle it is producing without any steering wheel or pedals.

Interest in robotic delivery has been growing from a range of companies from small startups to retail giant Amazon.

Nuro co-founder Dave Ferguson said the US approval came after a detailed review over three years in which the company demonstrated it can operate safely.

"We are excited to begin public road testing with R2 in Houston in the coming weeks," Ferguson said in a blog post.

"This will provide additional valuable real-world data on how people react to our delivery vehicles. The launch of R2 marks a new phase for Nuro, as we work towards deploying our delivery services at city scale in Houston with multiple partners."

Ferguson said that the R2 was designed "purely for transporting things instead of people" or a "zero-occupant vehicle."

"We were convinced that such a class of vehicle had the potential to be safer than passenger vehicles: more nimble, narrower, and better able to prioritize the well-being of other road users," he said.

"And by building such a vehicle we could also lower vehicle cost, improve the customer experience, and accelerate autonomous technology deployment by solving problems jointly through both hardware and software development."

Nuro last year said it raised some $940 million in financing from the Japanese group SoftBank as it moved toward its launch.

The Transportation Department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a statement it granted Nuro's request for a temporary exemption from certain low-speed vehicle standard requirements so it can operate on public roads.

"Since this is a low-speed self-driving delivery vehicle, certain features that the Department traditionally required -- such as mirrors and windshield for vehicles carrying drivers -- no longer make sense," said Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Nuro has been testing prior version of its delivery vehicle in Arizona and uses self-driving Toyota Prius cars for deliveries in Houston.