hit the road

Self-driving delivery company with Houston pilots gets historic government approval for new model

Nuro is now able to roll out its new model of self-driving vehicles in Houston thanks to a recent announcement from the government. Photo courtesy of Nuro

A California-based tech company has got the green light today to move forward a new line of autonomous vehicles that will soon hit Houston streets.

Nuro, which has a few self-driving delivery pilot programs across Houston, has been granted its exemption petition from the United States Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This move is a first for DOT, and it allows Nuro to roll out its vehicles on public roads without the features of traditional, passenger-carrying vehicles — like side mirrors or windshields, for instance.

"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," says U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao in a news release.

Now, with this permission, Nuro has unveiled its newest model — the R2. The new model is more narrow than the R1, and has 65 percent more climate-controlled space for its food deliveries. The vehicle also has new safety features, like 360-degree vision using lidar, radar, and cameras and even has a pedestrian-protecting feature that enables the car to collapse on impact.

Image courtesy of Nuro

"We founded Nuro on the belief that we could reimagine, design, and develop an autonomous vehicle that would make the world a safer place," says Nuro co-founder and president, Dave Ferguson, in a release. "Our second-generation vehicle will advance our goal of transforming local commerce, and we are gratified that the Department of Transportation, under Secretary Chao's leadership, is promoting public safety and providing regulatory certainty for the self-driving industry."

The R2 models are being assembled in the U.S. with Nuro's partner, Roush Enterprises, which is based in Michigan. Per the NHTSA announcement, Nuro can deploy up to 5,000 R2 vehicles during the two-year exemption period. According to the DOT release, the organization will be monitoring Nuro's work throughout those two years.

"NHTSA is dedicated to facilitating the safe testing and deployment of advanced vehicle technologies, including innovative vehicle designs, which hold great promise for future safety improvements," says NHTSA Acting Administrator James Owens in the release. "As always, we will not hesitate to use defect authority to protect public safety as necessary."

Nuro currently has three pilot programs — all of which were announced last year. The company is working with Domino's, Kroger, and Walmart on food and grocery deliveries in six Houston ZIP codes. Since entering the Houston market, Nuro has been using its fleet of self-driving Prius vehicles to research and map the city's roads.

With this permission granted from DOT, Nuro can start making deliveries using its R2 fleet with its three retail and restaurant partners.

"Today's decision shows that 'exemption' can mean more safety," says Ferguson. "Our world-class team solved countless novel problems to create this design, and, after extensive modeling, research, and testing, created a vehicle unlike any other on the road today."

Photo courtesy of Nuro

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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