Will self-driving, electric vehicles power Walmart’s contactless delivery future?

Photo: Walmart/Cruise
Nov 11, 2020

Walmart’s customers in Scottsdale, AZ, are among those using the retailer’s Delivery Unlimited  and other home delivery services in thousands of stores across the U.S. When those very same customers place their home delivery orders early next year, they may find their groceries arriving in a self-driving electric car.

The pilot program is being run in partnership with Cruise, the all-electric vehicle subsidiary of General Motors. In a company blog, Tom Ward, Walmart SVP of customer product, writes that use of the Cruise vehicles will help put the retailer on the road to achieving zero emissions by 2040, a goal the company announced in September to apply across its global business. Walmart also pledged to help “protect, manage or restore at 50 million acres of land and one million square miles of ocean by 2030 to help combat the cascading loss of nature threatening the planet.”

“Technology that has the potential to not only save customers time and money but also is helpful to the planet is technology we want to learn more about,” wrote Mr. Ward.

“You’ve seen us test drive with self-driving cars in the past, and we’re continuing to learn a lot about how they can shape the future of retail. We’re excited to add Cruise to our lineup of autonomous vehicle pilots as we continue to chart a whole new roadmap for retail,” he added.

Walmart is experimenting with a number of alternative delivery models in addition to driverless cars. The company, also in September, announced three separate flying drone pilots: one test to deliver groceries and household essentials, another for health and wellness products and a third for COVID-19 self-collection kits.

The COVID-19 program being run in partnership with Quest Diagnostics offered a way for the retailer to get testing kits to customers in a contactless manner. The pilot served Walmart customers in North Las Vegas and Cheektowaga, NY, that live within a mile of designated supercenter locations. Drones landed the kits on customers’ driveways, sidewalks or backyards depending on trees and cars. Customers return the kits via a prepaid package after administering the test to themselves.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Are retailers and their technology partners getting close to making self-driving delivery services a reality on a widespread basis? What do you see as the biggest hurdles still to be overcome and what are the opportunities associated with this form of delivery?

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"This is certainly very exciting. Developments like Starship delivery vehicle and drones may well be just the tip of the iceberg."

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12 Comments on "Will self-driving, electric vehicles power Walmart’s contactless delivery future?"

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Neil Saunders

Widespread adoption is still quite some way off because there are a lot of regulatory hurdles to overcome. Arizona has been very open to self-driving vehicles which is why a lot of trials are carried out here. In other states and locations, there are far more restrictions which makes such a scheme difficult if not impossible. All that said, driverless vehicles will represent a major advancement in e-commerce delivery, simply because they will reduce costs and improve margins. Their day will come, but it isn’t quite here yet.

Adrian Weidmann

Experimenting, testing, and trials will continue but self-driving delivery services on a widespread basis are not in our near future. As long as autonomous vehicles share public roadways with real-people the viable and safe use of this technology is a long way down the road. Whether on the road or in the air, in the near future, these autonomous vehicles will find their use in defined communities such as within a healthcare or corporate campus. Not to mention the challenges with security- we will experience a new age of pirating where people will intercept and steal the contents of these autonomous vehicles.

Oliver Guy
Oliver Guy
Global Industry Architect, Microsoft Retail
1 year 6 months ago

This is certainly very exciting. Developments like Starship delivery vehicle and drones may well be just the tip of the iceberg. It will likely follow driverless car developments but for smaller items it may also jump ahead. Small vehicles moving around on pavement could well be the answer to accelerating things.

Zel Bianco

This has great potential but I still worry about how they will navigate safely with human beings being the biggest danger to overcome. Sometimes things can get out of hand. There was a group of about 10 men driving down Broadway the other day in ATVs and off-road dirt bikes. Combine crazy maniacs like that with the hundreds of motorized bikes delivering food from DoorDash and you very quickly come upon a situation where the self driving electric vehicles had better been programmed to avoid human obstacles.

Gene Detroyer

Yes, this is cool — but it is a ways off. Not only will further development of the technologies take time, but what are the human processes that go with them both for the delivery side and the receiving side?

Will there be different technologies for different geographies? Of course.

Neil brings up the regulatory aspects, which may be the biggest hurdles. That is not just the federal level, but also the state level and the municipal level. Ugh!

The biggest opportunity for the retailer is labor savings and ease of operations. The biggest opportunity for the shopper is time savings. The future is in this ecosystem of autonomous activities. But the tipping point may be a generation off.

Steve Montgomery

The short answer is no. There are far too many technical and legal hurdles to overcome for this to happen in our near future. There is no question that COVID-19 accelerated changes in the way in which customers can complete the purchase process, but self-driving delivery vehicles are a magnitude more complex than in-store pickup, curbside delivery or delivery by a vehicle driven by a human being.

Andrew Blatherwick

It feels as if we are drifting into the unknown with retailers ahead of the legislature on the use of driverless vehicles for home delivery. If these vehicles are used to deliver single drop packages the roads will be overrun with them in a very short space of time. It is one thing to claim they are green and a move toward Walmart being carbon neutral but if they bring our cities and towns to a standstill, they will not be a great idea.

There are tests being carried out in many different places around the world by many different retailers. To date, governments have sat back waiting to see what impact they will have and if they are going to be successful. However, if vast amounts are invested in this technology and then the world governments legislate against them, that investment will be wasted, and we will all be back to square one. It is time government and retail came together to work out how viable single drop electric vehicles really are.

Harley Feldman

A widespread adoption of self-driving services is still in the future. However, this test by Walmart and General Motors will go a long way in proving whether the technology is ready for adoption or is cost effective. These tests result from private industry being creative, spending some of their research dollars, and believing there is a return on their investment. The proof has yet to be determined but this test is a good start.

The biggest hurdles will be in the mapping of the path to the residence or business when there is a change required due to road construction, weather or accident. The opportunities are for more frequent deliveries, lower cost and more flexibility than relying on human drivers.

Kim DeCarlis
Self-driving delivery services have the potential to leapfrog forward in light of our ongoing pandemic. This gives people – especially in vulnerable segments – an easy alternative to get the products they need without potential exposure. For these services to become widespread, they must be proven to be safe and reliable, and they must meet or exceed regulatory requirements for self-driving vehicles which vary by location – not an easy task. Additional hurdles include security. This includes making sure that the vehicles cannot be hacked, and keeping the apps that people use to buy products, and schedule their delivery, safe from harm. Earlier in the pandemic, we saw browser extensions introduced that helped users get highly coveted delivery slots for groceries. These extensions introduced risk since they can drag malware or malicious code along with them – the kind that can harvest consumers’ user names, passwords and credit card numbers. Retailers must ensure that they both jump over self-driving regulatory hurdles and build their apps and websites to protect against malicious add-ons. Both are possible… Read more »
Joan Treistman
One hurdle for customers using self-driving delivery services is taking the delivery from the vehicle. In the article there is reference to medical tests being delivered, but tests having to be returned via mail. I’d like the self-driving technology to pick up that test and see that it gets to where it is supposed to go for analysis. In general, I wonder how self-driving technology can work well for the infirm. Whenever I see reference to delivery on a driveway, I visualize a consumer walking out the door to retrieve whatever has been left on the driveway or possibly still in a vehicle waiting for the customer — in a wheelchair, walker, on crutches? The delivery service would have to adjust to the nuances of various home styles, i.e. long driveway in front of the house, on the side and no driveway at all with the house on the edge of a sidewalk or roadway. Are the customers younger, older, disabled or healthy? There are a lot of boxes to check off to make self-driving… Read more »
Ricardo Belmar

The promise and potential of driverless cars and drones powering future automated deliveries is tremendous, but we’re not there yet. While there are many regulatory hurdles to overcome, it’s still not clear how these systems will maintain safety when confronted with random human points of interaction that can’t be predicted. Sure, with developments in AI and machine learning, we will get there, but I see this as being years away for anything other than helping to reduce delivery costs in remote areas.

Kenneth Leung

Only for specific areas, I think. In most high density and suburban areas, I don’t see the self-driving vehicles being widespread. Moreover, right now most people are working from home so it makes sense that you can deliver to the door via autonomous delivery, but as people become mobile you still need the human to deliver the package to the front door. And there are enough legal and logistics hurdles for widespread self-driving and drone deliveries to prevent widespread deployment at this time.

"This is certainly very exciting. Developments like Starship delivery vehicle and drones may well be just the tip of the iceberg."

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