California allows startup Nuro to test driverless delivery vehicles

FILE PHOTO: The unmanned delivery vehicle, Nuro, is seen during the Kroger annual shareholders meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S., June 28, 2018. Courtesy of Kroger/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) - California’s Department of Motor Vehicles on Tuesday authorized autonomous technology startup Nuro to test two driverless delivery vehicles in nine cities, a decision that comes as coronavirus concerns lock down many in the state.

U.S. companies that deliver groceries, household goods and take out food are scrambling to find drivers as well as ways to deliver with zero or minimal contact amid the virus outbreak.

Nuro, the second firm after Alphabet Inc's GOOGL.O Waymo to receive the state's permit, has been allowed to test its low-speed R2 vehicle, about half the width of a regular car, without drivers. It has been testing autonomous vehicles on California's roads with safety drivers since 2017.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has expedited the public need for contactless delivery services. Our R2 fleet is custom-designed to change the very nature of driving, and the movement of goods, by allowing people to remain safely at home while their groceries, medicines, and packages, are brought to them,” Nuro Chief Legal and Policy Officer David Estrada said.

The permit also means Nuro can begin conducting deliveries with its local retail partners, Estrada added.

Walmart Inc WMT.N and Domino's Pizza DPZ.N last year launched pilot delivery projects with Nuro in Houston.

The permit allows Nuro to test its vehicles in parts Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, including parts of Atherton, East Palo Alto, Los Altos and six other cities.

Nuro, a privately held robotics company based in Mountain View, California, was permitted by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in February to deploy up to 5,000 low-speed electric delivery vehicles in Houston without human controls such as mirrors and steering wheels.

Reporting by Munsif Vengattil and Ayanti Bera in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli