Moving towards new levels of convenience and value – the autonomous grocery delivery race is on

  • US supermarket chain will soon launch driverless grocery delivery service
  • Unmanned delivery will be a game-changer for local commerce
  • Toaster on wheels could face some regulatory hurdles

In a world where the customer is king, retailers are constantly looking for new ways to provide a better, more convenient shopping experience. When Amazon announced the $13.7 billion purchase of the Whole Foods grocery chain in 2017 and revealed plans to launch a robotic delivery service, other retailers realised they could no longer solely rely on customers coming into their stores to buy groceries. If they wanted to have any chance of competing against the likes of Amazon, they needed to introduce a grocery delivery service of their own.

A recent survey revealed that four out of five Americans would be interested in having their groceries delivered. However, due to high costs and inconvenient services, only 2 per cent of them actually do it on a regular basis. In an attempt to reduce costs, some retailers have started to experiment with driverless cars.

US supermarket chain will soon launch driverless grocery delivery service

Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the United States, recently joined forces with the self-driving car startup Nuro to launch a driverless grocery delivery service. The pilot program for the new service will take place this autumn in Scottsdale, Arizona, where customers will have the opportunity to order groceries from a local Fry’s Food store, which is owned by Kroger, and have them delivered to their doorstep via a self-driving vehicle. “We are incredibly excited about the potential of our innovative partnership with Nuro to bring the future of grocery delivery to customers today,” says Yael Cosset, Kroger’s chief digital officer. “Partnering with Nuro, a leading technology company, will create customer value by providing Americans access to fast and convenient delivery at a fair price.”

A man with a grocery bag approaching a Nuro self-driving grocery delivery vehicle
Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the United States, recently joined forces with the self-driving car startup Nuro to launch a driverless grocery delivery service.

Customers will be able to place their orders on the website or through the Nuro mobile app, and request either same- or next-day delivery. The cost of the service will be $5.95, with no minimum order requirements.

Unmanned delivery will be a game-changer for local commerce

The delivery will be fulfilled by an autonomous delivery van called the R1, unveiled by the Silicon Valley-based startup for the first time in January 2018. Nuro was founded by Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu, two former Google employees, who spent five years working on Waymo, Google’s self-driving project, before leaving to start their own self-driving company in 2016. “Unmanned delivery will be a game-changer for local commerce, and together with Kroger, we’re thrilled to test this new delivery experience to bring grocery customers new levels of convenience and value,” says Ferguson.

Once a customer places an order, Kroger’s employees will load the items they requested into the vehicle and send it on its way. Customers will be able to use the app to keep track of the location of the vehicle at all times and will be notified when it reaches its destination. They will then have to use a PIN code or some other form of verification to open the vehicle and retrieve their delivery from its compartments. “We’re proud to contribute and turn our vision for local commerce into a real, accessible service that residents of Scottsdale can use immediately,” adds Ferguson. “Our goal is to save people time, while operating safely and learning how we can further improve the experience.”

Toaster on wheels could face some regulatory hurdles

Described by many as a toaster on wheels, which even its designers agree is an apt description, the R1 is a four-wheeled electric vehicle designed specifically to haul goods, not people. In fact, it doesn’t even have room for people inside, only two containers that can hold up to six grocery bags each. That may turn out to be a problem, as some US states require human safety drivers to be present in self-driving vehicles at all times, so they can take over in case of emergency. The company says that their self-driving fleet will be monitored remotely by human operators, but hasn’t revealed whether they’d be able to control them remotely as well. The R1 is smaller than a regular passenger car and it can reach speeds of up to 40 kilometres per hour:

However, since the R1 won’t be ready for deployment until some of these regulatory matters are resolved, Nuro plans to begin the trial with Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf vehicles, which will be equipped with the company’s self-driving technology. “The Priuses share many software and hardware systems with the R1 custom vehicle, so while we compete [sic] final certification and testing of the R1, the Prius will begin delivering groceries and help us improve the overall service and customer experience,” explains a Nuro spokesperson. The vehicles will have human safety drivers present as well, but they won’t actively participate in the delivery. In other words, they won’t help customers unload their groceries, so they can get a better feel for what the service will be like once the delivery is taken over by the R1.

“With the pilot, we’re excited about getting more experience interacting with real customers and understanding exactly what they want,” says Ferguson. “The things they love about it, the things they don’t love as much. As an organization … it’s also very valuable for us to have to exercise our operational muscle.” The two companies plan to use the pilot program to collect data, optimise driving routes, assess the accuracy of their estimated delivery times, gauge how the self-driving vehicles interact with regular vehicles on the road, and how the public reacts to them. If everything goes well, Kroger plans to expand the service to all 35 states where it has its stores.

Are driverless grocery delivery services the future of the retail industry? Until some of the outstanding regulatory matters are resolved, we won’t be able to tell for sure. However, with Amazon’s recent acquisition of Whole Foods, it’s become clear that other retailers will have to introduce some form of grocery delivery service of their own – if they want to remain competitive. So don’t be alarmed if you see a small, toaster-shaped vehicle parking itself into your driveway one of these days – it just means your groceries have arrived.

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