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How Google’s self-driving car project accidentally spawned its robotic delivery rival

How Google’s self-driving car project accidentally spawned its robotic delivery rival

Nuro doesn’t have a typical Silicon Valley origin story. It didn’t emerge after a long, slow slog from a suburban garage or through a flash of insight in a university laboratory. Nor was it founded at the behest of an eccentric billionaire with money to burn.

Nuro was born — and ramped up quickly — thanks to a cash windfall from what is now one of its biggest rivals.

Nuro was born — and ramped up quickly — thanks to a cash windfall from what is now one of its biggest rivals.

In the spring of 2016, Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu were teammates on Google’s self-driving car effort. Ferguson was directing the project’s computer vision, machine learning and behavior prediction teams, while Zhu (widely JZ) was in charge of the car’s perception technologies and cutting-edge simulators.

“We both were leading pretty large teams and were responsible for a pretty large portion of the Google car’s software system,” Zhu recalls.

As Google prepared to spin out its autonomous car tech into the company that would become Waymo, it first needed to settle a bonus program devised in the earliest days of its so-called Chauffeur project. Under the scheme, early team members could choose staggered payouts over a period of eight years — or leave Google and get a lump sum all at once.

Ferguson and Zhu would not confirm the amount they received, but court filings released as part of Waymo’s trade secrets case against Uber suggest they each received payouts in the neighborhood of $40 million by choosing to leave.

“What we were fortunate enough to receive as part of the self-driving car project enabled us to take riskier opportunities, to go and try to build something that had a significant chance of not working out at all,” Ferguson says.

Within weeks of their departure, the two had incorporated Nuro Inc, a company with the non-ironic mission to “better everyday life through robotics.” Its first product aimed to take a unique approach to self-driving cars: Road vehicles with all of the technical sophistication and software smarts of Google’s robotaxis, but none of the passengers.

In the five years since, Nuro’s home delivery robots have proven themselves smart, safe and nimble, outpacing Google’s vehicles to secure the first commercial deployment permit for autonomous vehicles in California, as well as groundbreaking concessions from the U.S. government.

While robotaxi companies struggle with technical hitches and regulatory red tape, Nuro has already made thousands of robotic pizza and grocery deliveries across the U.S., and Ferguson (as president) and Zhu (as CEO) are now heading a company that as of its last funding round in November 2020 valued it at $5 billion with more than 1,000 employees.

But how did they get there so fast, and where are they headed next?

Turning money into robots

“Neither JZ nor I think of ourselves as classic entrepreneurs or that starting a company is something we had to do in our lives,” Ferguson says. “It was much more the result of soul searching and trying to figure out what is the biggest possible impact that we could have.”


Source: TechCrunch

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