Just in time for Uber’s IPO today comes word from The Information (paywalled) that the mobility company has been chatting with autonomous vehicle company Nuro about a food delivery partnership. If such a partnership were to come to pass, using Nuro’s self-driving pods could be a way for Uber to lower driver costs and improve Uber Eats’ margins.
Nuro makes electric, low speed vehicles that are about half the size of a regular car and top out at 25 miles per hour. They are built for cargo and do not even have a space for a driver. According to documentation seen by The Information, the partnership with Uber would start later this year in Houston. This makes sense as Nuro is already operating there as part of its expanded pilot with Kroger to do self-driving grocery delivery.
Nuro’s partnership with Uber would be different from its program with Kroger. Instead of Nuro vehicles carrying food from restaurants directly to a consumer, they would instead take food from restaurants to a central hub. Once at this central hub, a human driver would take it the last mile, delivering it to doorsteps. The Information writes:
The hope is that the centralized hub for orders would allow drivers to handle more food orders than they currently do and potentially make more money because they won’t have to spend time going to each restaurant to pick up the food.
There aren’t many details, so this Uber/Nuro partnership could manifest in different ways, but two things immediately spring to mind. First is that it seems like more wear and tear on the food. Restaurants place meals in a Nuro that travels to the hub. Food is removed from Nuro and sits on a shelf until a human picks it up and puts it in their car. Human drives the food to the consumer.
Then there’s the temperature of the food because as we know, soggy food sucks. I’m sure Nuro’s can be outfitted with thermal zones to keep hot food hot and cold food cold, but that seems like a recipe for disaster when bundling together multiple entrees, sodas and desserts, especially when they need to be packed and re-packed.
The second thought that springs to mind is whether Uber would employ a similar hub system as Zume Pizza. Zume sets up mobile distribution points in various neighborhoods where delivery drivers come and pick up orders. Rather than leasing a brick and mortar location, Uber could set up a customized van or food truck that could be parked in different locations. Based on the data Uber has about what types of food people are buying, when and how often, Uber could change and optimize the location of these mobile hubs on any given night.
Then again, all this speculation is moot if the deal never comes to pass. Neither Uber nor Nuro would confirm the story with The Information. Uber is understandably a little pre-occupied with its IPO today, and thanks to the $940M investment from Softbank this year, Nuro has some runway to experiment with programs like this.
Regardless if this particular deal comes to pass, it’s nice to see companies are continuing to experiment and iterate the food delivery process. Whether its low-speed-vehicles, full-on self-driving sedans, rover robots, or even drones, the way we get our meals delivered to us is going to drastically change over the next five years.