On the muggy streets of suburban Houston, amid McMansions, bright green lawns and stately oak trees, a futuristic race is quietly afoot.
The contestants are not people but late-model Toyota Priuses outfitted with an array of sophisticated sensors. Despite fierce competition and unending pressure to perform, the nearly silent electric vehicles do not speed. They move cautiously, rigorously following traffic laws and never topping 25 mph.
Their goal is not an easily discerned finish line but to map large swaths of the nation’s fourth-largest metropolis, a sprawling patchwork of neighborhoods, mini-cities, strip malls, gridlocked superhighways and mazelike gated communities – an area so prodigious in size it easily could swallow Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island whole.
The vehicles are owned by Nuro, a Silicon Valley robotics company with an ambitious goal – to become the world’s preeminent autonomous delivery service, allowing millions of people to have groceries and other goods delivered by robots instead of making trips to the store, potentially reducing traffic and kicking off a new chapter in our relationship with machines. For months now, Nuro’s robotically piloted vehicles have been successfully, if quietly, delivering groceries to restaurants and homes around Houston, the vehicles’ sensors mapping the city as they go.
The faster Nuro’s vehicles map Houston’s notoriously chaotic roadways, the faster the company can refine its software and export its business model elsewhere. But time is in short supply.
Like Nuro, companies such as Amazon, Alphabet-owned Waymo, Robomart, General Motors’ Cruise division, Ford-affiliated Argo AI, Starship Technologies and many others are also rushing to deploy high-functioning autonomous vehicles for delivery and passenger transport, with some companies attracting major deals and billions in funding. Their goal is to earn public trust and offer real-life convenience, experts say, heightening their chances of securing a valuable foothold in a new era defined by autonomous transportation.
To get there, they will first have to run their autonomous vehicles, or AVs, through millions of miles of driving tests in cities such as Houston until they are glitch-free and unquestionably safe.
“The pressure is real,” said David Syverud, head of robot operations at Nuro. “And to be clear, it is a race in the AV space to deploy quickly and be the first to really get there.”
It goes from there, and it’s worth your time to read, even if it’s a few weeks old at this point. We’ve met Nuro before, and I see their cars around; I’ve seen a couple in and around my neighborhood. Like most stories written about Houston by people not in Texas, this one is both a window into how others view us, and how they can get confused about certain basic things we understand. Like, for example, how you have to distinguish between the city of Houston and the greater Houston area. This is what I mean:
Company officials say they were also drawn to Houston for the complexity of its metropolitan environment, a puzzle of independent communities, each with its own road conditions, zoning ordinances, parking rules and traffic laws. Some area neighborhoods offer wide lanes and little traffic, others are narrow and perpetually hectic – providing the company’s robotic software a massive variety of testing conditions.
As the country’s most ethnically diverse large city – and with a foreign-born population of 1.4 million – Houston also is a place where Nuro officials could probe fundamental questions about its business model.
“The big question for us is: Who is going to use this service, and how often will they do it?” said Sola Lawal, a Nuro product operations manager based in Houston who formerly worked for Uber. “Our robots don’t care who they’re delivering to, but we want to understand how different demographics interact with and feel about the robots. Houston allows for this broad swath of experience in one city.”
That’s all well and good, and it’s easy to see why Houston would be an attractive testing ground, but come on. The city of Houston has a population of about 2.3 million. I assure you, the population of the city of Houston is not three-fifths foreign-born. The greater Houston metropolitan area has a population of about seven million, and I daresay that’s what they meant when they dropped that statistic in the story. But please, let us be precise about these things.
Anyway, despite such glitches, the story is worth reading, so go check it out. We occasionally use grocery delivery, via Whole Foods and Amazon Prime. They leave the goods in a cooler we put out on the porch, and however successful this Nuro project is I don’t see that part of the task being robot-ified any time soon. There’s a lot of money being bet on this business expanding rapidly. I’m usually skeptical about this sort of thing, but what do I know?