Robo-van trial helps Walmart with grocery deliveries, but not to your door

Walmart is about to launch a trial in Arkansas using self-driving vehicles to transport online grocery orders to one of its stores for customer collection

To make it happen, the retail giant is working with autonomous-vehicle (A.V.) company Gatik in a partnership we first heard about in June 2019.

The initial plan is to use three of Gatik’s self-driving vehicles for so-called “middle-mile” operations. It means that instead of taking online grocery orders directly to customer addresses, the robo-vans will transport the orders from Walmart’s large Supercenter in Rogers, Arkansas, to one of its smaller neighborhood stores about four miles away. Customers can then drop by to pick up their items.

This type of operation is easier to set up as Gatik’s vehicles — all with a safety driver behind the wheel — will be plying the same, predetermined route between two locations rather than deviating along potentially more challenging streets to multiple customer addresses.

Middle-mile delivery has been identified as an attractive sector of the A.V. market for Gatik, as it won’t have to spend time teaching customers about autonomous home delivery or trying to persuade them of the benefits of such a service. Nor does it need to face the challenge of developing autonomous big rigs for long-distance shipping.

More broadly, it also leaves the development of complex robo-taxi services to other much larger outfits such as Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise division. Indeed, the scale of the challenge faced in building such a platform was laid bare in a recent message from Cruise in which it revealed it needs more time than expected to perfect its technology.

Gatik is using modified Ford Connect vans in its Arkansas pilot program, Wired reported. Kitted out with lidar, radar, and camera technology, the vehicles will make up to 10 trips a day, operating between the two sites seven days a week during daylight hours.

The primary aim of the trial is to allow Walmart and Gatik to gather data to help them find the best way to incorporate autonomous vehicles into the retail firm’s broader logistics operation, according to TechCrunch.

Such technology could potentially enable Walmart to reduce shipping costs by an estimated 50%, though whether customers will see any of those savings remains to be seen.

Walmart has already partnered with several outfits similar to Gatik to explore how A.V. technology might benefit its business. A tie-up with Udelv, for example, has seen the company experiment with deliveries to customer homes in Oklahoma City, while another pilot in Chandler, Arizona, offered online grocery shoppers discounts if they were happy to be driven to the store in one of Waymo’s robo-taxis to collect their order, before being taken home again.

We’ve reached out to Gatik to find out more about the Arkansas trial and will update this piece if we hear back.

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