Nuro and TuSimple Continue Service During Coronavirus

This is when it counts
article cover

· 3 min read

Stay up to date on emerging tech

Drones, automation, AI, and more. The technologies that will shape the future of business, all in one newsletter.

Human-to-human contact is canceled, but people still need food, medication, and other essential items. Delivery companies are plugging the gap, but not without risk to their employees and contracted gig workers.

What about delivery machines that can't get sick? Investors have sunk tens of billions into last-mile bots, autonomous vehicles, and drone networks. Let's see where they're at now.

On the ground

Most self-driving companies have suspended operations. But at least two haven't, and it's no coincidence they operate what are considered essential delivery services.

In Houston, self-driving startup Nuro is still delivering groceries in partnership with Kroger. Autonomous delivery "can benefit communities, making it easier for people to get food and other things they need," Nuro told me.

  • It recently received the greenlight from U.S. safety officials to deploy up to 5,000 of its forthcoming R2 vehicles.

TuSimple's autonomous trucks are running commercial cargo trips in Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas. The startup is providing pro bono services to the Arizona Food Bank and has over 18 commercial partners, including UPS and USPS. TuSimple wouldn't say who's actively shipping besides food supply chain company McClane.

"We see a need to move this technology forward, stand behind our beliefs, and keep the trucks rolling," TuSimple Chief Product Officer Chuck Price told me. At any point, he said roughly half of TuSimple's fleet of 40 trucks are on the road (including nighttime). Non-essential personnel are working remotely, while trucks crewed by a safety driver and engineer have alcohol wipes, gloves, and masks.

  • Yesterday, TuSimple also announced it will commercialize robo-big rig tech with auto supplier ZF.

Drones time to shine?

In Africa, Zipline runs the world's largest drone delivery network, with over 1 million autonomous miles flown and 60,000+ vaccine, medicine, and blood delivery drops. Zipline wants to help in the U.S. "and could be ready to hit the ground within weeks of getting the greenlight," spokesman Justin Hamilton told me.

Fresh off 100,000 flights and 6,000 customer drop-offs, Alphabet's drone unit Wing told me it's still running delivery services in Virginia and Australia. It's in talks with U.S. authorities "to determine if there is any support we can provide."

Drone delivery networks offer efficient logistics and an on-demand inventory system in rural areas. In healthcare, these flight logs can serve as an early warning system for potential outbreaks.

  • So could more drones take flight? "We have received inquiries about expanded drone operations to respond to COVID-19," the FAA told me. It's still using the "existing certification process."

Bottom line: Though humans complete virtually every U.S. delivery, these fledgling tech companies have an opportunity to show their services can help strained supply chains. This is when it counts.

Stay up to date on emerging tech

Drones, automation, AI, and more. The technologies that will shape the future of business, all in one newsletter.