Safeway Enters Autonomous Delivery Space With Remote-Controlled Carts


Photo: Business Wire press release

Supermarket chain Safeway will pilot remote-controlled, driverless carts to deliver grocery orders to neighborhood homes, Safeway’s parent company Albertsons Companies announced on Friday (March 5).

“Our team is obsessed with trying new and disruptive technologies that can bring more convenience for our customers,” Chris Rupp, the company’s EVP and chief customer and digital officer, said in the release. “We are willing to quickly test, learn and implement winning innovations that ensure we are offering the easiest and most convenient shopping experience in the entire industry.”

These carts, with their Pixar-esque smiley face design, are created in partnership with Mountainview, California-based software company Tortoise, which “transforms last-mile delivery and shared micromobility operations.” They are being tested in select areas in Northern California, and for now, they will be accompanied by a human chaperone. As Rupp put it in an interview with Fast Company, “for now, we have a human involved to translate what the robot is doing.”

Ultimately, however, the carts are intended to be controlled by an operator who remains in the Safeway store, using the vehicle’s built-in camera and speaker to drive the vehicle to its destination. When the customer’s delivery arrives, they receive a text letting them know to come to the door, at which point the in-store operator remotely releases the lock on the container carrying the order. The carts can transport up to four lock-secured containers, bearing a total of 120 pounds. They travel at a speed of three miles per hour, running on electric battery power for emission-less transport.

The announcement of these carts comes as hundreds of millions are pouring into the autonomous delivery space. Walmart, for instance, has been testing out self-driving trucks and drone deliveries. Meanwhile, Amazon has been making deliveries with its autonomous robot Scout, and Uber just spun out the Postmates X robotics unit under the name Serve Robotics, which has been making deliveries in Southern California, according to TechCrunch.

Throughout the pandemic, Albertsons has been seeing strong digital growth as online orders soared. The company has already been automating other stages of the delivery process. In May, Albertsons partnered with artificial intelligence (AI) communications provider Nuance Communications to address the demand for online grocery, using Nuance’s virtual assistant and live chat solutions to assist online customers by providing real-time responses about delivery, order tracking and other queries.

“Our associates are fully committed to assisting our customers in the stores, and now we can extend that same Albertsons experience to our digital channels, ensuring our customers’ needs are met however they choose to shop,” Rupp said at the time.

However, the company’s pandemic-motivated focus on optimizing delivery efficiency has not been without conflict. The company came under fire in January when it laid off its unionized delivery drivers to partner with DoorDash, after the passage of California’s Proposition 22 let gig economy firms like DoorDash continue classifying their workers as independent contractors.

“What’s really exciting for the public is you now have this affordable, contactless home delivery option, because not everybody can afford to pay the 40 percent premium … when you’re using things like Instacart,” Tortoise President and Co-founder Dmitry Shevelenko recently told Spectrum News 1. He added that the pandemic has boosted the demand for the company’s robot delivery technology, saying, “the events of the last year have really pulled us into the mainstream.”

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