Walmart, like most automakers and tech giants, believes autonomous technology can help it save a tremendous amount of money. But the company isn’t just interested in getting people from point A to point B; it wants to use self-driving trucks and vans to move goods around America and ultimately slash its shipping costs in half. Walmart could pass the savings onto consumers, while becoming one of Amazon’s worst nightmares.
American retailers have already started experimenting with autonomous technology; geo-fenced self-driving prototypes made by Nuro are delivering groceries from a Kroger store in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the same pods will begin delivering pizza from Domino’s stores to hungry customers in Houston by the end of 2019. Walmart is taking a broader approach: Instead of only using autonomous cars for last-mile deliveries, it also wants to deploy them to connect the stores and warehouses it operates around the nation. The company calls this the middle-mile part of the supply chain.
The technology required to achieve autonomous middle-mile deliveries is similar to the technology needed for last-mile deliveries. The car, truck, or pod must scan its surroundings and correctly identify obstacles, signs, and other road users to safely navigate with no human input. Getting it right presents different challenges. Middle-mile deliveries usually involve driving at highway speeds for hours on end in an ever-changing landscape; a robo-taxi likely won’t have to rely on its suite of sensors to drive across the Sierra Nevadas, for example. Driving on an interstate is usually simpler than driving in a crowded urban center because it’s more predictable, especially considering Walmart’s prototypes will almost always take the same route.
Spontaneously becoming an automaker is easier said than done — just ask Apple. Walmart is sourcing technology from California-based Gatik, which operated in stealth mode until June 2019. It introduced itself to the world by announcing a $4.5 million investment led by Innovation Endeavors, a venture capital firm created by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. The tie-up remains at the embryonic stage, and additional details about Gatik’s partnership with Walmart — and other retailers — will emerge in the coming months.
In the short run, Walmart doesn’t expect replacing human drivers with robots that obey sensors will put truck drivers out of work. Automotive News reported the meteoric rise in online shopping bumped the number of unfilled long-haul driver positions in America to 60,000. Going driverless will help fill this void, while greatly reducing the retailer’s operating costs.
Consumers won’t be able to tell whether a professional truck driver or an autonomous truck delivered vanilla frosting to their nearest Walmart. The biggest difference is that they’ll hopefully pay less for it, and they might spend less on getting it shipped — or otherwise delivered — to their door.
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