Besides the economic, environmental and convenience benefits, a main focus for autonomy in general is safety. Self-driving technology enables vehicles to drive responsibly and react more quickly than a human driver. In designing a vehicle that carries only goods, we were able to further focus on increased road safety rather than the comfort of passengers. Our vehicle has the unique potential to self-sacrifice — keeping what’s on the outside even safer than what’s inside. The vehicle is about half the width of a Toyota Corolla, which leaves a 3–4 foot safety buffer to avoid tough situations like very narrow streets or people unexpectedly running into the road. Ultimately, using this design and technology on the road will not only increase convenience and access but help save lives. For our application of goods transportation in particular, we’re also hoping that long term we will be able to change consumption habits across the country and the world. If you can buy things, or rent things, or borrow things extremely conveniently, then you may not need to stockpile as much or even own as much at home. We think this technology could potentially usher in a new model of consumption where you don’t need to personally own as much stuff, similar to how ridesharing has made it so much easier to not own a vehicle.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave Ferguson, the co-founder and president of Nuro, a technology company focused on accelerating the benefits of robotics for everyday life. Dave has worked on robotics and machine learning for nearly 20 years; before founding Nuro, Dave was a principal engineer on Google’s self-driving program, now known as Waymo. He holds an MS and PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon and a Bachelor’s in Computer Science and Mathematics from the University of Otago.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I started my undergraduate degree in New Zealand, I wasn’t sure what I should choose for my major. So I dabbled in a range of subjects — everything from physics to law. It was a red, Dalek-style trash can robot that had just arrived at the Computer Science Department that got me hooked on computer science and robotics in particular. Programming that robot to explore its environment while avoiding obstacles was really exciting for me. It’s just as exciting now, but involves slightly different robots and slightly different obstacles.
Following that first robot tinkering, I decided to major in computer science and mathematics, and then later pursue an MS and PhD in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. At CMU I experienced a treasure trove of incredible robots, which culminated in my leading the planning team for CMU’s entry in the DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007. I then joined Google to work on the self-driving car project in 2011. After five years at Google I saw an opportunity to accelerate other industries with robotics the way Google had with self-driving passenger vehicles. I therefore moved on from Google to found Nuro alongside one of my best friends.
Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
We’ve merged software and hardware in-house to create a completely custom, unmanned goods transportation vehicle. It’s designed to keep what’s outside even safer than what’s inside.
The vehicle is completely electric, about the same size as a street-legal golf cart, and will join our fleet of autonomous passenger vehicles in Scottsdale by end of year. Through the vehicle’s technology and our partner, Kroger, we are aiming to make grocery delivery accessible and affordable to all.
43 percent of car trips are for shopping or running errands. American spend 60,000 lifetimes every year inside vehicles for these trips. Our service is able to drastically reduce this time. We created a self-driving vehicle made especially for delivery to give people more time to spend doing the things they love.
How do you think this might change the world?
Besides the economic, environmental and convenience benefits, a main focus for autonomy in general is safety. Self-driving technology enables vehicles to drive responsibly and react more quickly than a human driver. In designing a vehicle that carries only goods, we were able to further focus on increased road safety rather than the comfort of passengers. Our vehicle has the unique potential to self-sacrifice — keeping what’s on the outside even safer than what’s inside. The vehicle is about half the width of a Toyota Corolla, which leaves a 3–4 foot safety buffer to avoid tough situations like very narrow streets or people unexpectedly running into the road. Ultimately, using this design and technology on the road will not only increase convenience and access but help save lives.
For our application of goods transportation in particular, we’re also hoping that long term we will be able to change consumption habits across the country and the world. If you can buy things, or rent things, or borrow things extremely conveniently, then you may not need to stockpile as much or even own as much at home. We think this technology could potentially usher in a new model of consumption where you don’t need to personally own as much stuff, similar to how ridesharing has made it so much easier to not own a vehicle.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
Lots of people are worried about safety of self-driving vehicles, and rightly so. Our vehicle is designed to be safer than nearly any other vehicle on the road — it is lighter than a passenger vehicle, narrower and more nimble, and operates at lower speeds. Our vehicles and their autonomous system undergo extensive testing, including a wide range of critical safety scenarios. When deployed, it has a remote operator able to monitor it at all times, capable of taking over when needed.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
In order to achieve widespread adoption, we need to scale Nuro’s service nationally. We’re currently testing in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area and plan to expand to additional regions. We also want to expand delivery to other kinds of goods beyond grocery. To that end, we’ve had conversations with many retailers.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
When we launched in January, we shared our mission and product with the world. Since that moment, we’ve announced our partner, first pilot market, and are on the cusp of deploying our vehicle to that pilot market. Our incredible team has worked very hard to bring accessible convenience to communities everywhere.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been so fortunate in my life and my career to know, and work with, many incredible people. I’ve had a number of inspiring teachers and mentors who have encouraged me to dream big but stay grounded. My parents have been tremendous supporters from the very early days when I was just a mischievous little kid.
The reality is that none of us are able to pursue major opportunities without enormous help from individuals and society at large. I’m incredibly lucky and grateful for all the breaks I’ve had — and I hope I can take advantage of all that good fortune to contribute something back to the world.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Nuro was founded with the mission of accelerating the benefits of robotics for everyday life. In practice that mission means creating a solution to a problem that impacts millions of people. The specific problem we want to solve is time and delivery; there are options available for affluent, urban communities, but nothing that is accessible and affordable for all.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Oh boy. Just five?
(1) Startups are hard. People did tell me that before I started but you can never hear this enough. Building something from nothing — and ideally something meaningful — will very likely take everything you’ve got. This has been an incredibly rewarding experience, but it has also been an enormous amount of effort, pressure, and responsibility.
(2) Some fires you have to let burn. Before Nuro, I tried to make sure every effort I was involved in was in good shape. However, this is not possible at a startup. You will always have some initiatives that aren’t where you want them to be. This was something Reid Hoffman told us, and it has proven to be a constant. But it is actually a good thing: if everything is wrapped up and in perfect condition, you’re probably not being bold enough or taking on enough challenges.
(3) Missionaries, not mercenaries. For us, the team has always been by far the most important thing we’re building. From day one we’ve been invested in building the best team possible. It’s important that every new hire, especially in the early days, is passionate about the company’s mission and pursuing that collectively. The best talent is not enough at a startup; you need to have the best people. Things will get hard and you need to trust your team and their passion at a personal level.
(4) Money is cheap, time is precious. Raising money is a critical part of building a company — and it isn’t always easy to get it. But time — particularly that of the founders and key team members — is incredibly limited. It is almost always better to spend money rather than time when it’s an option.
(5) Your job is to deal with the hard stuff. When leading an organization or any large team, you will spend an inordinate amount of your attention on things that are difficult or broken. This makes sense, considering things that are going really well don’t need a lot of additional care. However, it also means being a leader drives your attention to the most troubling or least performing parts of the company — and this can be emotionally draining. Recognize that what you experience is a very biased glimpse into the state of the company. Sometimes it takes a moment to acknowledge how many amazing things you didn’t deal with today.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I personally struggle with climate change and how we can collectively tackle what may be the biggest challenge we’ve faced as a civilization. If I could contribute to a movement that took over the country and the world, I would love it to be one of dogged determination to take on this challenge together and rise above the short term self-interest, fear, and denial that is so easy to succumb to. We can definitely solve this, but it will require us to be bold and work together.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Red Whittaker, one of my favorite professors at CMU and someone I spent years with on various crazy robotics projects, used to say “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” It’s something I reflect on frequently; how we choose to spend our limited time and resources is one of the most important decisions we ever make. I also love that embedded in that phrase is Red’s classic optimism: Don’t ever underestimate your ability to accomplish bold goals.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
I’d let our results speak for themselves. In roughly two years we built an entirely new kind of vehicle, taught it to drive itself, partnered with America’s largest grocer, and worked to get the vehicle on public roads in Arizona. Now, in the coming weeks, we’re going to launch an unmanned service to the general public. From the start of Nuro our policy has been to only hire the very best people, and we think our results show what happens when you’re fortunate enough to be able to do that.
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