Kroger, America’s largest supermarket chain, will be rolling out a driverless grocery delivery service in partnership with Nuro, a company started by two former members of Google’s self-driving car team.
A pilot will be rolled out in a US city later this year, with Nuro initially using a fleet of self-driving test cars with human safety drivers onboard, before introducing their own autonomous vehicles (pictured, above).
Customers will be able to track and engage with the vehicles through a mobile app and Kroger’s online delivery platform.
However, a notable difference for consumers will be that they will need to unload the shopping from the vehicles themselves. And to make the pilot as authentic as possible, the human safety drivers will not come out to help shoppers with their groceries during the trial, which may cause friction with customers.
Kroger did a thorough search of autonomous vehicle startups before deciding to partner with Nuro. “We wanted a team that could demonstrate an ability to innovate reliable technology,” said Yael Cosset, Kroger’s chief digital officer, in an interview with The Verge.
“We cannot just rely on physical stores to reach all of our customers for delivery and pick-up,” he added in an interview with CNBC.
Kroger has 2,800 stores under banners such as Fred Meyer, Ralph’s, and Harris Teeter, in 35 US states, serving around nine million customers every day. Nearly three quarters of those customers have access to, or use, Kroger’s delivery services.
The last mile challenge
The partnership comes as retailers and courier companies try to overcome the challenge of last-mile delivery for certain types of produce – the final step in getting products to consumers’ homes. This is particularly challenging with fresh food in crowded cities – many of which are becoming part-pedestrianised or discourage the use of motor vehicles – and in sparsely populated rural areas.
Rivals Walmart and Amazon have already made moves to tackle the issue. Walmart has partnered with Postmates, and Amazon has said it will work with entrepreneurs who run their own local networks of up to 40 vans, although it is unknown if they will be used for food delivery. Meanwhile, Amazon has ambitions of its own in the deliveries market.
Kroger has separately announced that it is investing heavily in online grocer Ocado, and plans to use some of Ocado’s automation systems in its own warehouses. There is likely to be some overlap with the Ocado and Nuro technologies.
Cossett suggested that eventually “you can expect the rollout of Ocado as well as fulfilment capabilities, autonomous delivery… to be available to 100 percent of America”.
Kroger hopes that its pilot will change the current perception of autonomous driving systems, which has been damaged by recent news stories about the Tesla and Uber accidents, according to a recent survey.
Internet of Business says
Our recent report on robotics in smart cities revealed a growing problem in the West: ageing, isolated populations in ageing cities, whereas Asia and Africa face the inverse problem of young populations in young cities.
Autonomous delivery networks of electric vehicles are one proposed solution for getting goods to consumers in a way that is fast, efficient, and causes minimal environmental impact. Drones are another, while other companies, such as Uber, are looking at becoming hubs for all forms of frictionless transport, suggesting that deliveries may take whatever form is most suitable in different locations.
However, the general thrust of development in driverless or robot deliveries has been to create solutions that go the last mile, but not the last few metres to the front door – or upstairs. As a result, online shoppers may have to go out to a vehicle or robot to retrieve their goods themselves – groceries that are currently delivered to their door by human beings.
For young, able-bodied people and anyone who lives at ground level, that may not be an inconvenience. But for ageing populations, disabled people, or others with young children, this may create problems that simply don’t exist with human couriers.
Anyone who lives in a block of flats or some distance off road – as many people do in both cities and rural communities – may find themselves with having to make their way slowly down to a vehicle that has other deliveries to make, or has not been instructed to wait for them.
Worse, they would then have to carry the goods into their homes themselves – potentially on the top floor of a tower block. With large deliveries, that could be a logistical nightmare, not to mention a risk to their health.
Factor in snow, wind, and rain, and some retailers, grocers, and delivery companies may find that they have made deliveries significantly less convenient for many people, while saving money on their own bottom lines.
For all of these reasons, the future deliveries market is likely to be a complex mix of human and automated options, including traditional van- and bike-based couriers, robots, drones, and personal services for older or more vulnerable or isolated people.
Logically, a possible knock-on effect of this may be that deliveries become significantly more expensive for those that can least afford it: elderly or isolated people living in apartment blocks, which in the West may be a sizeable chunk of the populace.
As 65+ populations soar in the US, Europe, and the UK, retailers and delivery companies should consider these factors carefully, before putting all of their eggs in one automated, electric basket.
After all, the digital and sharing economies are all about reducing friction and improving the customer experience, not making life cheaper for retailers.
Additional reporting and analysis: Chris Middleton.
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