Jiajun Zhu, co-founder and CEO of autonomous robot company Nuro, joined TechCrunch onstage during TC Sessions: Mobility on Wednesday to discuss how the startup aims to revolutionize commercial autonomous delivery.
The company is most well-known for its cute self-driving delivery vehicles, which operate on roads, not sidewalks, and are purpose-built to carry pizzas and packages rather than people. Nuro recently unveiled its third generation electric delivery robot, the Nuro, which it’s building at a new $40 million manufacturing facility and closed-course test track in southern Nevada.
Nuro, which has raised more than $2.13 billion since its founding in 2016, has locked down a range of commercial partners, like Domino’s, Kroger, FedEx and 7 Eleven, and is operating and testing in multiple states.
TechCrunch managing editor Matt Burns sat down with Zhu to talk about Nuro’s path to commercialization, the opportunities and challenges of AV delivery and where the industry, and Nuro, is headed.
Here are three key takeaways from their discussion.
Zhu hints that LA might be Nuro’s next market
Nuro is currently operating and testing in California, Arizona and Texas, with a focus on Houston and the San Francisco Bay Area as the company’s initial markets, according to Zhu. When asked which markets the startup is targeting next, Zhu said Nuro might make an announcement about that soon, but something tells us Los Angeles might be the nearest target.
“We recently announced that we are also doing data collection and mapping in LA,” said Zhu on Wednesday. “Our focus right now is just trying to make the service really, really good and make our customer happy and super excited in our existing markets.”
Nuro announced that it had begun mapping in LA in April, saying in a Medium post that the company would soon begin autonomous vehicle testing in the region using its fleet of Toyota Prius vehicles.
“Over the next few months, Angelenos can expect to see Nuro’s vehicles on public roads, and later this year, we’ll begin testing autonomous driving in specific neighborhoods throughout LA County,” the company said in the post. “While we are not fully deployed in LA, the Nuro vehicles residents may see are laying the foundation for our autonomous delivery service.”
Don’t get attached to the idea of Nuro as a delivery company
“Nuro is really a robotics company,” said Zhu. “We don’t see Nuro as a delivery company or a self-driving car company. Our mission is to better everyday lives through robotics.”
When Dave Ferguson, Nuro’s president and co-founder, and Zhu founded Nuro, it was with the conviction that within 20 years, robots will be everywhere, helping people to have a better life. Choosing to focus on delivery was less about the feeling that delivery was the most important avenue, and more that it would simply be one of the first.
“We looked at all these different verticals and asked ourselves, which one is going to have the biggest impact on a lot of people?” said Zhu. “We have this unique expertise and competence that we can build something that is better than other companies, potentially. Which product can have that impact in a reasonable timeline, not 10 years from now, but something that we can see and a use for in a reasonable timeline?”
For the time being, the market opportunity for transporting goods across various retail verticals allows for Nuro to be an actual business, not just a science experiment. Zhu said Americans take up to 100 billion trips every year for shopping and running errands. Automating that can potentially be a huge time saver for a lot of people. But Nuro hasn’t ruled out other ways to save people time — Zhu said he’s particularly interested in home robots.
“I really want a robot that can fold my laundry in the future,” he said.
The benefits of partnering with auto OEMs on robots
Nuro has partnered with BYD North America on its newest generation delivery robot, and Zhu said it’s designed for manufacturing.
“It is, we believe, the first vehicle that is automotive quality, that will be mass manufactured,” said Zhu. “It has much bigger cargo space based on all the feedback and input that we learned [from previous iterations].”
As Nuro works on getting its self-driving tech up to speed, being able to manufacture vehicles with the backing of a major automaker is critical to scaling and becoming profitable.
Another benefit is being able to include automotive-grade speed and safety features. The Nuro can drive up to 45 miles per hour, which gives it plenty of geographic coverage but eliminates the need to drive on the freeway. It also has safety features like an airbag in the front of the vehicle, rather than on the inside, so it can protect vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists. The Nuro also has active heating and cooling so it can deliver a hot pizza and a cold beer at the same time, said Zhu.