Google’s self-driving car business (now known as Waymo) is still working on minivans, but a company created by two ex-Googlers who worked on the company’s driverless cars are after a different goal. Nuro wants to make a specialized vehicle that will run deliveries in the gig economy.
After years of waiting, the promise of self-driving cars seems to work better as a thought experiment than a practical reality (for now). Which makes Nuro’s existence yet another layer on that thought experiment. Namely, can the gig economy handle self-driving cars doing the jobs humans only recently discovered they can do?
The concept behind Nuro is that, instead of having space for passengers or even large amounts of cargo like a semi-truck, the Nuro features gull-wing door compartments where you can fit pizza, groceries, flowers, or anything else that you can get delivered. Instead of relying on a fleet of individual people who own their own cars—like, say, Grubhub or Amazon—or hiring dedicated delivery drivers—like every pizza place—companies could simply package their goods in the Nuro car and send it on its way.
Naturally, Nuro faces the same challenges that all other self-driving cars face (can it drive safely, who’s responsible if it gets in an accident, when and where will they be legal, etc.), but it also introduces some new questions. What will happen to the “employees” (contractors, really) of gig economy companies if these catch on? How many low-level jobs would this eliminate? Do customers even want their stuff delivered by a robot car that they can’t talk to?
Existential crises about the future and our place in it after the robots take over aside, the Nuro concept is pretty cool. Most vehicles have been designed around some basic principles that aren’t optional if you’re including drivers and passengers in the mix. Nuro’s lunchbox design, however, compresses the “driver” space into almost nothing, while including specialized compartments that are much better suited to storing goods and keeping them safe than the back seat of Dave’s car. It’s possible that in a driverless car future, autonomous vehicles could be specialized in all sorts of ways we haven’t anticipated because we’re so used to what we think a “car” is supposed to look like.