Nuro just won a Spark: Design Award in the Transportation category for our unmanned custom vehicle, the R1. We sat down with Ben Julian, one of our designers, to learn what it takes to bring an entirely new class of vehicle to life, the R1’s design inspirations, and Formula One drivers.
What does industrial design mean at Nuro?
Industrial design encompasses all hardware that people (customers, end users, retailers) see and experience in their real world, how everything looks, feels, and functions flawlessly. I call this our “A-side” surface: the final skin of our product that people respond to that also conveys Nuro’s DNA. It’s everything from the overall gesture of our 3D form to the small details and durability of our material choices both inside and out over time.
How did R1’s design process begin? What was unique about it?
We started with research into local goods delivery. The more we did, the more excited we became at all the use cases which would be enabled by a bespoke design. Thus, R1’s brief started really simply: “Deliver anything, on demand, for free.” This overarching objective is still valid for Nuro today. Without a human passenger constraint, we could start to sketch and model smaller formats. We believe smaller vehicles are safer, less expensive, and better for the environment.
We considered the simplest things — how minimal the vehicle could be, how many doors and their orientation, how many wheels. Even the choice of tire size.
We’ve worked really efficiently since I joined the Nuro team almost two years ago. We began with a rough styrofoam model. Before the company turned one, we had created a nimble, safe, fully functional autonomous vehicle that will be making its public debut shortly in Arizona as part of our delivery service.
What constitutes great design?
At Nuro, our successful design underpinnings are simplicity, functionality, and efficiency. An important distinction: our hardware is not intended to be purchased by our delivery customers. Thus, we’ve had the freedom to entirely reimagine an on-road vehicle without the human passenger or human caretaker. Nuro’s customers aren’t concerned about what happens “under the hood”, how efficient our 100% electric propulsion is, our compute system redundancies, or our perception system. For us, great industrial design delivers just enough functional hardware to service our customers’ desires. The efficiency of Nuro’s complete service improves how our customers can better spend their own effort, time, and resources by avoiding unnecessary car trips.
Did anything inspire the design of the R1?
One recognizable inspiration was the F1 racing helmet — specifically, the racer’s visor from where a driver’s eyes peer out. Making eye contact is what people do to connect, both emotionally and to communicate instantaneously. The thing about the R1 is that it’s not just driverless- there are no people in it at all. Other road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, use eye contact with vehicles to communicate. We incorporated this facial feature into R1’s front fascia design; R1’s headlight cut-out resembles a helmet visor framing a driver’s eyes. It conveys the feeling of something familiar but safe, a quick glance of connection between two road users.
It does look like a face, and a friendly one at that. Was this intentional?
R1’s form language is intentionally positive. It’s a completely new class of vehicle, and the driverless concept can be tough to immediately grasp. We’ve been living with manned automobiles for 130 years, after all.
The public will soon witness R1 for the first time. To make the emotional transition to this new class of vehicle as seamless as possible, we made the form language approachable and friendly. In our next model of the vehicle, this characteristic becomes even more pronounced with a distinguished upward “smile”. This visual cue relays that our vehicle has friendly determination. Look around at other cars and you’ll get a read on their “faces” — are they mean and aggressive or are they delighted to help you? R1 targets the latter.
The importance of R1 embodying neighborliness has been part of Nuro’s identity from the beginning. Our co-founder, JZ, wanted the vehicle to be so approachable and easy to interact with that kids might even hug it once when it arrives in front of their home for a delivery. Suffice it to say we weren’t trying to design a fast, aggressive sports car.
What does this award mean for Nuro?
Winning a Spark Design award is another strong validation of Nuro’s focus on crafting an entirely new class of self-driving robot engineered for local goods delivery. We were truly humbled by the deep experience on Spark’s expert juror panel, including Mike Nuttall, co-founder of IDEO. We’re one of just only a few worldwide companies that’s designing custom autonomous vehicles in-house from scratch. This originality is imperative for a few reasons; our customer’s user experience is optimized and seamless, people perceive Nuro’s vehicle and service as different from other vehicles on the road, and because a smaller, lighter Low Speed Vehicle is safer and better for the environment than a full-size car. This creative investment gives us freedom to craft the very best look and feel for our product, user experience, and service.
What was one of the biggest challenges your team faced when designing the R1?
The highly-regulated transportation industry is challenging when safely designing a new vehicle. With R1 we had the flexibility to really innovate to create new safety elements that aren’t part of standard passenger vehicles. But we also needed to work within the existing vehicle regulations. Safety has always been our number one goal, and we feel the resulting design is a major leap forwards in this direction, while still standing out as a vehicle that breaks the mold.