Autonomous vehicles hit the road this year in the name of retail, with pilots of delivery services for groceries and takeout coming to U.S. cities. To bring these innovations to fruition, technology companies and retailers decided to join forces.
Ford and Postmates kicked off 2018 by announcing a new partnership that would allow the automaker to test its self-driving technology for deliveries. (Those plans were laid out by Ford CEO Jim Hackett in a speech at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January). At the time, the company said that its Argo AI test vehicles would use Waze software for real-time navigation as well as traffic services. It was reported at the time that the vehicles would be deployed in a yet-to-be-named city.
Then, in June, the companies announced that they were testing the technology in Miami and Miami Beach. In a blog post at the time, Ford Autonomous Vehicle Business Team member Alexandra Ford English wrote that the research vehicles were operated manually with drivers. But she wrote that the pilot vehicles were designed to look like they are self-driving, with the focus of the research on the first and last mile of the delivery experience.
Still, English noted that the technology was meant to “inform the design of our purpose-built, self-driving vehicle that’s scheduled to arrive in 2021.” She went on to say that with its Postmates partnership it is “testing methods for efficient deliveries to help local businesses expand their reach and provide a seamless experience to customers.” Those could include “local favorites like Coyo Taco,” among other options.
To load up the vehicles for deliveries, a restaurant employee types a code into the vehicle’s screen to open one of its lockers and stores the food inside. When the vehicle ends up at its destination, a diner gets a text telling him or her that the order is ready for pickup. At that time, the consumer meets the vehicle at the curb and types a code on a touch screen to open up the locker. According to English’s post, over 70 businesses were participating and area residents “may be given the option to have [their] items delivered by a self-driving research vehicle.”
And, also in June, news surfaced of another autonomous delivery partnership: Grocery retailer Kroger announced that it was teaming up with tech company Nuro to test a fully-autonomous delivery service. To take advantage of the offering, shoppers would place same-day delivery orders through Kroger’s ClickList ordering system and Nuro’s app. At the time, Kroger Chief Digital Officer Yael Cosset said that the partnership would “create customer value by providing Americans access to fast and convenient delivery at a fair price.”
Later, in December, Kroger announced that it had begun to use autonomous vehicles in Arizona: That is, the company said it was using R1 that only deliver goods and don’t carry passengers or drivers. The grocer, along with Nuro, had utilized a fleet of Prius cars with operators for almost 1,000 deliveries.
Autonomous Driving Startups
Beyond larger firms, smaller companies unveiled autonomous vehicle pilots this year: In October, udelv said it was bringing its self-driving delivery technology to Oklahoma City. The company said at the time that it would provide 10 customized cargo vans to stores such as Smart Saver and Uptown Grocery. The company called the agreement the largest deal for autonomous delivery vehicles (ADV) to date in an announcement, as it seeks to improve upon the downsides of traditional delivery methods.
In a prior PYMNTS interview, udelv CEO Daniel Laury said, “We aim to use our technology to solve issues associated with the current delivery industry, including the cost and the poor customer experience. The company’s mission is to make everyone’s life easier and build the future of transportation.” He also noted that the technology could lower overtime and driver costs to help smaller companies, “meaning savings can be passed onto the consumer, leveling off the playing field against larger competitors like Amazon.”
And another company, AutoX, was launching a self-driving grocery delivery pilot in the format of a mobile store in California. The new service, which was announced in August, was to be available to consumers in geo-fenced areas of San Jose. To tap into the AutoX service, shoppers hail a vehicle and browse various grocery items through the company’s app. Then, when the vehicle arrives at its destination, a window rolls down that enables consumers to pick their purchases. AutoX Chief Operating Officer Jewel Li, told PYMNTS in a previous interview, “we’re … inventing new ways of shopping.”
The aim, then, is that self-driving vehicles won’t only change the way that retailers deliver items — they could change the way that consumers shop for items, too.