Autonomous cars: Waymo and Walmart partner on a grocery pickup service

Autonomous-car outfit Waymo is about to start ferrying shoppers to and from a Walmart store in Arizona as part of its efforts to explore different uses for its self-driving technology.

The trial is part of Waymo’s “early rider” program that gives selected residents in Phoenix access to its fleet of self-driving minivans.

The new service is aimed at online shoppers who will be driven to Walmart to collect their items after they’ve hit the “buy” button at home. Waymo said it hit upon the idea after noticing that many of its early riders used its driverless cars for trips to and from grocery stores.

Incentives to use the service include discounts on grocery orders, the company said in a blog post.

But as a future platform for autonomous cars, the idea will appear flawed to some observers. That’s because most click-and-collect shoppers are usually returning from work or an errand before dropping by to pick up their order, rather than traveling directly from home as in Waymo’s case.

Alternatively, many online shoppers will choose to have their order delivered to their door, in which case, ordering online and then taking a ride to get it will seem like a waste of time. In fact, why not just get the autonomous car to deliver the goods to the customer’s home and reduce the number of necessary journeys from four to two?

Still, if the discount is decent and the novelty of riding in a driverless car remains, it could be a fun trip for Walmart customers while at the same time providing Waymo with useful data about how riders take to different kinds of services.

Not just grocery pickup

Waymo, which was spun out of Google’s former autonomous-car unit, is also trying out other ideas, including offering a last-mile solution to Avis customers in Chandler, near Phoenix, to help them collect and drop off their rental vehicles. It’s also partnered with AutoNation to offer customers rides in Waymo vehicles while their own cars are being serviced.

“While these are Metro Phoenix-specific partnerships today, these businesses are national and what we learn from these programs will give us a network of partners when we launch in new cities down the road,” Waymo said in its post, adding that it’s “excited to grow and add partnerships that support the cities we operate in, bring unique value to our riders, and give more people access to a safe, self-driving future.”

Waymo isn’t the only company looking at different ways to utilize self-driving cars. Ford, for example, is testing how it can use autonomous-car technology for meal-delivery services as part of a large fleet, with a trial currently underway in Miami, Florida.

As we can see from the examples above, rather than individuals buying their own autonomous cars, it’s likely the technology will initially be developed for more controlled platforms such as taxi, ridesharing, and shuttle services, as well as for delivering goods to people’s homes and offices.

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