The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is adding a first-generation “zero-occupant” self-driving delivery vehicle powered by sustainable energy to its robot collections. Collecting the R1 from Nuro, the Mountain View, California, robotics company, is part of the museum’s continuing effort to document inventions in sustainability. Nuro’s autonomous, all-electric and zero-emission vehicles are designed to deliver products, such as groceries, food and prescriptions, as part of the firm’s mission to make neighborhood roads safer and to reduce vehicle emissions.
Deployed in 2018 to 2019, R1 was utilized for testing and deliveries in Scottsdale, Arizona, and could operate at a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour. The white vehicle, built off a golf cart platform, has short- and long-range sensors and numerous safety features. Classified as an on-road vehicle, it was required to meet all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards such as side-safety mirrors even though there was no person in the vehicle to use them.
Four years after Nuro was founded by Jiajun Zhu and Dave Ferguson in 2016, it became the first company to receive a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration exemption for public road use of a self-driving vehicle. With that exemption, the company’s second-generation vehicles now operate without some of the normal elements of a passenger road vehicle, such as rear view and side mirrors or a windshield.
“The donation of the R1 prototype not only helps us document the history of robot development but offers a glimpse of what the future of sustainability and mobility might be,” said Carlene Stephens, a curator in the museum’s Division of Work and Industry.
“We started Nuro with a vision of improving everyday life for individuals and communities,” said Ferguson, Nuro’s co-founder and president. “Safer streets, more sustainable commerce and more time for what matters. We are so proud that our first custom vehicle, the R1, will help showcase this vision as part of the Smithsonian’s collections. As kids, many of us spent time at the Smithsonian, inspired by the incredible innovation chronicled within its walls. We are thrilled at the prospect that Nuro may help inspire the next generation of innovators.”
R1 was deployed by Nuro for the company’s first commercial service in 2018, delivering groceries in Arizona. During the pandemic, in 2020, Nuro worked with two California medical treatment facilities to deploy its second-generation vehicle to make contactless delivery of medical supplies.
The story of both electric and self-driving cars serve as important examples of how the U.S. absorbs or rejects potentially (transformative) technologies. The museum’s earliest electric cars include a 1904 Columbia electric runabout, the country’s best-selling car at the turn of the century and a 1913 Ford Model T touring car, a gasoline car equipped with an early type of electric starter and electric headlights. A General Motors EV1, the first modern electric car introduced to the market in 1996, is also in the collection. The EV1 lease program was discontinued by 2003. At one time, it was believed that electric vehicles were not commercially viable. By 2010, the market saw the reintroduction of electric cars, and for the first time in almost 100 years, consumers could purchase all-electric or hybrid cars.
As experimentation began with autonomous vehicles, the museum began adding robotic vehicles to its collection beginning in 2005 with “Stanley,” a modified blue Volkswagen Touareg that won that year’s Grand Challenge robot race sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). “Ghostrider,” a self-driving motorcycle developed as part of DARPA’s research challenges in 2004 to 2005, is also in the collection. There are no immediate plans to place the Nuro R1 on display.
Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History seeks to empower people to create a more just and compassionate future by examining, preserving and sharing the complexity of our past. The museum, located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, is open daily, except Dec. 25, between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. The doors of the museum are always open online and the virtual museum continues to expand its offerings, including online exhibitions, PK–12 educational materials and programs. The public can follow the museum on social media on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. For more information, go to https://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.
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