HOUSTON—Self-driving delivery startup Nuro soon will be gathering groceries alongside another big partner.
The company said Tuesday it will launch a pilot project during the first quarter of 2020 with retail giant Walmart. Together, the two companies will work to deliver groceries to select Walmart grocery customers in Houston.
Those deliveries will be made, in part, using the R2, the second iteration of Nuro's pioneering delivery vehicle, which contains no room for human occupants. Some of the company's fleet of Toyota Priuses also will be deployed.
Last December, the company became the first to launch a zero-occupant vehicle on public roads, deploying its first-generation vehicle in a similar pilot project with Kroger in the Phoenix area. That partnership then migrated to Houston.
Now, Nuro, headquartered in Mountain View, Calif., is increasingly turning its attention to Houston as a location where it intends to establish a long-term footprint.
"We chose Houston—and not many have—because it's a great training ground for the technology to get really, really good," said David Estrada, chief legal and policy officer at Nuro. "There's so much diversity in the size, the narrowness, the quality and busyness of the streets. It's a great place to develop the technology, and then we want to show we can make this an efficient service that can work for retailers."
Beyond Kroger and Walmart, Nuro has a partnership with Domino's. The company has raised more than $1 billion, receiving investment from SoftBank Group Corp. and Greylock Partners.
Between its Prius test fleet, initial R1 vehicles and now its R2 second-generation cars, Nuro has a fleet of approximately 75 vehicles, according to Estrada.
Working alongside contract manufacturer Roush, Nuro has designed its low-speed vehicles to contain two general compartments to carry goods. Walmart and others can further customize the compartments.
Customers who are already part of Walmart's delivery service can opt into the autonomous-vehicle deliveries. Sometime in 2020, the companies expect to make the AV option available to members of the general public.
"We're starting as a 'let's learn, and then go from there,' " Estrada said. "We want to do that in a city like Houston. We want to scale up in one city, become really great at delivering to people in multiple neighborhoods from multiple stores. We want do that in one city, and do it well."
Those learnings primarily will be focused on serving customers and improving its automated-driving system, but they also will teach Nuro about maintaining a fleet.
"There's actually some similarities to scooters, in that you are operating a bunch of electric vehicles in a certain radius, and those vehicles need service and a constant connection," said Estrada, who previously worked at Bird. "There's a whole service-oriented piece of this business that's really complex in addition to the autonomy piece."