CVS is testing driverless vehicles in Houston for safe, socially distanced medical deliveries

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Self-driving vehicle startup Nuro announced yesterday that it will deliver medical prescriptions autonomously to residents in parts of one Texas city. It could be a boon for the health and safety of those made even more vulnerable because of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a company announcement, Nuro will partner with CVS, one of America’s biggest pharmacy chains, to deliver prescriptions to customers in a “pilot area,” which is made up of three zip codes in Houston, Texas.

[Read: Uber scraps thousands of Jump ebikes, because recycling them is ‘too complicated’]

Starting next month, CVS customers can choose the autonomous delivery option during checkout on the pharmacy‘s website and app.

Nuro will then use one of its vehicles to pick up the prescription and deliver it to the customer within three hours.

Here’s the thing: it won’t be fully autonomous to begin with. The service won’t even use Nuro’s undeniably cute R2 delivery bots. But that might not be a bad thing. According to Nuro, it will use its retrofitted Toyota Prius vehicles, with one safety driver, to  make deliveries in the beginning. Eventually it will switch over to using its totally autonomous R2 delivery vehicles.

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Credit: Nuro Inc.
Nuro is the first company to receive an exemption from Californian state regulators to test vehicles without space for a driver or passengers.

Unlike conventional delivery drivers that hand you your package, customers will have to confirm their identity to unlock the vehicle and remove their prescription delivery themselves.

It seems the company is using its Priuses to maintain safety during the trial, and to help people warm up to this self-service mechanic that makes Nuro unique.

During the pilot period, deliveries will be free — which won’t be the case forever. The company hasn’t mentioned any potential pricing for after the trial. There’s also no sign of how long the trial will be.

Nuro is keen to stress the importance of socially distanced prescription deliveries during the coronavirus pandemic, but customers can also order other items from CVS such as toiletries and over the counter medicine through autonomous vehicle delivery.

Nuro is slowly but surely taking steps forward in the autonomous delivery game. Earlier this year, it was granted a license to operate its R2 delivery vehicles in parts of California, the only other company to have this is Google’s self-driving off shoot, Waymo.

This license is very important for Nuro, as its R2 vehicles aren’t built to house a human driver, at all. Indeed, if it’s going to switch from Prius to R2 at some point in Houston, it will have to seek similar regulatory approval. Proving the concept with safety driver equipped Toyotas might be a good first step.

Read next: How coronavirus is reshaping the mobility industry, from EVs to supply chains

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