Houston Innovators Podcast Episode 42

Autonomous vehicle delivery service is driving access to food in Houston’s vulnerable communities

Native Houstonian Sola Lawal is looking into how AI and robotics can help increase access to fresh foods in local food deserts. Photo courtesy of Nuro

When Silicon Valley-based artificial intelligence and robotics company Nuro was looking for a city to roll out its autonomous vehicle delivery technology, Houston checked off all the boxes.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Since rolling out its first pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, launched three more across six of Houston's ZIP codes from Bellaire to the Heights, including pizza delivery from Domino's that was announced in June 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched this summer.

Lately, Nuro's presence in Houston has expanded from these business development partnerships, and the tech company has started focusing on providing a service to the community.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, we started looking for ways we could contribute and help with the things we have — which includes a fleet of vehicles and product tools that allow that fleet to move around and do delivery."

This got Nuro in touch with the Houston Food Bank, and a partnership formed between the tech company and the nonprofit that has resulted in food deliveries across the city — including Third Ward and Acres Homes.

"That for us was eye opening as we went into those locations we started to understand and see that there really isn't any other grocery store that's in those areas," Lawal says. "It was a moment of reflection for us where we said, 'Hey, the AV works here. These are streets that are acceptable. What can we do?'"

In the future, Nuro, as Lawal explains, is moving forward these initiatives to use its AV technology to help increase access to fresh foods in Houston, as well as continuing developing the city as a leader in self-driving innovation.

"I think that autonomous vehicles are going to become an industry in the same way your standard vehicles are," Lawal says."One really strong way the Houston ecosystem and Nuro can partner is essentially building out the ancillary."

Lawal shares more about the future of AVs in Houston and the impact Nuro will continue to have on the city. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Building Houston

 
 

A Houston founder and small-space expert founded TAXA Outdoors to create better campers than what was in the market. Now, amid the pandemic, he's seen sales skyrocket. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

In 2014 Garrett Finney, a former senior architect at the Habitability Design Center at NASA, brought his expertise in what he describes as "advocating for human presence living in a machine" to the outdoors market.

After being less-than enchanted by the current RV and camper offerings, the Houstonian developed a new series of adventure vehicles that could safely and effectively get its users off-grid — even if still Earth-bound — under the company he dubbed TAXA Outdoors.

The vehicles would follow much of the same standards that Finney worked under at NASA, in which every scenario and square inch would be closely considered in the smartly designed spaces. And rather that designing the habitats for style alone, function and storage space for essential gear took precedence. According to Finney, the habitat was to be considered a form of useful adventure equipment in its own right.

"Ceilings should be useful. They're not just for putting lights on," he says. "Even when there's gravity that's true."

Today TAXA offers four models of what they call "mobile human habitats" that can be towed behind a vehicle and sleep three to four adults, ranging from about $11,000 to $50,000 in price.

TAXA's mobile human habitats range in size and price. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

And amid the pandemic — where people were looking for a safe way to escape their homes and get outside — the TAXA habitats were flying off the shelves, attracting buyers in Texas, but mainly those in Colorado, California, and other nature-filled areas.

"January, was looking really good — like the break out year. And then the pandemic was a huge red flag all around the world," Finney says. "[But] we and all our potential customers realized that going camping was the bet. They were with their family, they were getting outside, they were achieving sanity having fun and creating memories."

According to TAXA President Divya Brown, the company produced a record 430 habitats in 2020. But it still wasn't enough to match the number of orders coming in.

"We had we had almost a year and a half worth of backlog at the old facility, which we've never experienced before," Brown says.

To keep up with demand, the company moved into a 70,000-square-foot space off of U.S. 290 that now allows multiple operations lines, as well as a showroom for their vehicles and enough room for their staff, which tripled in size from 25 to 75 employees since the onset of the pandemic.

The first priority at the new facility is to make up the backlog they took on in 2020. Next they hope to produce more than 1,000 habitats by the end of 2021 and 3,000 in the coming years.

"It's a pretty significant jump for us," Brown says. "We really believe there's a huge market for this."

With the new facility, the TAXA team hopes to catch up with the explosive sales growth. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

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