Road-Testing the First Autonomous Car Grocery Delivery Service

A company called Nuro is delivering groceries in autonomous cars. So we ordered a watermelon.

Nuro

While I was in the Phoenix area taking care of family business earlier this month, the local news announced that a company called Nuro, run out of Mountain View, California, would start autonomously delivering groceries in Scottsdale for a fee of $5.95 per order.

Well, I thought. This is exciting.

The TV showed images of the Nuro, an odd little gray rhombus on wheels. It had gull-wing hatches that opened to reveal paper bags full of goods, making it look like a Star Wars power droid, but cleaner. Effective immediately, Nuro would be running its errands out of a single Fry’s grocery store on East McDowell. But the place I was staying sat miles outside of Nuro’s delivery zone. I had to resign myself to being autonomous-adjacent.

Every time I visited my family in Phoenix, a self-driving reality grew closer and closer. The Phoenix area has few laws regulating tech companies, its streets are wide and relatively traffic-free, arranged in an easily navigable grid, and it has a large population of elderly shut-ins who need rides. It’s the perfect dust storm for self-driving cars.

After a self-driving Tesla struck and killed a woman who was walking her bike across a median in Tempe last March, Uber pulled its up-to-then successful and popular autonomous experiments in Phoenix. But that didn’t stop the melee of studies. Since then, Waymo has been testing out an autonomous fleet of Chrysler Pacifica hybrids for months in the East Valley, with plans to expand the program more broadly. And now Nuro has come to experiment on a willing and largely clueless populace.

The day after the news broke, my dad and I went over to my sister Rebecca’s house for dinner. At some point, the conversation turned—because I’m an autodidact—to autonomous cars.

“Did you see that there are robot grocery deliveries in Scottsdale now?” I said.

“Yeah,” Rebecca said. “I got the notice in the mail along with my Fry’s coupons.”

I let that sink in.

“Do you mean to tell me,” I said, my voice rising, “that you live in the robot grocery delivery zone?”

“Apparently,” she said.

“Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy.”

"I guess that means you want the robot to deliver groceries,” she said.

 "Becca,” I said. “We have to. This is the future!”

“But I literally just went grocery shopping today,” she said.

"Well,” said my brother-in-law Aaron, “it would be fun to have the robot deliver ingredients for a mojito. And a watermelon.”

“Sure,” I said.

"Like the biggest watermelon imaginable,” he said. “Robot, bring me a watermelon!”

Now the family was getting into the spirit. At last, the robot cars would rise to save humanity from the drudgery and danger of driving to their errands. I marked this as one of the happiest moments in my life.

We set Saturday as the glorious day. On Friday evening, Rebecca started texting me, because the order had to be placed by midnight.

“A watermelon, rum, mint and sugar cubes. I need dish soap. Anything else?”

“Let me ask dad,” I said.

I went into the other room, where my father was watching Fox News, per usual.

“Hey, dad,” I said. “You want anything from the robot grocery car?”

“I could use some oatmeal,” he said.

“OK.”

“And cream of wheat.”

“You want oatmeal and cream of wheat?” I said.

“Is that a problem?”

“No.”

“And a box of Special K.”

I placed the order with Rebecca. It would come between four and five PM tomorrow. I paced around nervously all day, waiting for the golden moment. Finally, I could wait no more and got to my sister’s house around 3:15.

“What are you doing?” a friend texted Rebecca.

“I’m waiting for the robot to deliver my groceries,” she said.

Fry’s had been contacting her all day letting her know the order would be on time.

“They do send a lot of text messages,” she said.

Finally, at 4:35, the greatest text arrived:

“Your Fry’s order is scheduled for delivery in a self-driving vehicle. Please be available to receive your delivery at the curb.”

It’s happening, I thought.

A few minutes later, as Rebecca and I waited outside, a light-blue Prius with the word “Nuro” on the side pulled up to my sister’s house. The Prius had a camera contraption strapped to the roof. A tattooed bro sat behind the wheel. Another bro, who was holding a laptop, rolled down the window.

“Did you order groceries?” he asked.

“I thought they were being delivered in a robot car,” I said, crestfallen.

“Those don’t come online until September,” he said. “We’re using our Prius platform right now.”

“But…” I said.

A year ago, if you’d told me that a self-driving Prius would be able to bring me my groceries, I would have gotten so excited that I would have had to change my pants after the delivery was over. Now I wanted more. Society has come a long way in a short time.

Neal Pollack

“Don’t worry, guys,” said the delivery bro. “This was a fully autonomous Prius grocery delivery. It drove itself all the way here from Fry’s.”

We opened up the rear of the Prius, which was taken up by two green plastic crates that contained paper grocery bags. My sister thrust a particularly heavy bag into my arms.

“Here’s your stupid autonomous watermelon that you ordered because you thought it was funny,” she said.

“We sure appreciate you guys,” said the delivery bro.

“Can I come with you?” I begged.

“Unfortunately, we can’t let you get into the backseat,” he said. “But you are totally OK to take a photo,” he said.

I did that, and then we went inside to unpack. The order included everything my dad had wanted, but did not include rum, because the law prohibits robot cars from delivering alcohol in Arizona. So we had all the ingredients for mojitos, including a bag of limes that the robot had bought us, except for the key one.

“That’s a bummer,” said my brother-in-law.

“This is why we can’t use this delivery system,” said Rebecca to her husband, “because I ordered you the granola you always get and they sent Special K granola instead.”

Such is life. Nobody (except me) said robot grocery delivery vehicles were perfect. But they’re here and they’ll deliver groceries to you if you’re near. Pretty soon, we’re going to get used to them.