For much of this year, Nuro, a Silicon valley robotics company, has been delivering groceries and pizza to customers in Houston using its autonomous delivery vehicles.
Company officials claim they are in the early phases of a long-term effort to make robotic delivery via self-driving vehicles a staple of daily life in cities across the country.
This week, Nuro took a giant step in that direction by announcing a grocery delivery partnership with Walmart – the big box behemoth and the nation’s largest employer. For now, the company said, the partnership will remain a pilot program and be focused on Houston, where Nuro is already delivering merchandise across the sprawling metropolis from major brands like Kroger and Dominos.
The Walmart delivery service will be available to a select group of Nuro customers, but will expand to the general public in 2020.
“Walmart is committed to serving our customers whenever and however they choose to shop,” Tom Ward, Walmart’s senior vice president of digital operations, said in a statement. “We are excited to work with Nuro and continue to learn as we are incorporating self-driving technology in our delivery options, learning more about our customers’ needs, and evolving Walmart’s future delivery offerings.”
In a statement posted on Medium, Nuro credited Walmart with reinventing the modern supply chain and hinted at the potential for expansion created by teaming up with the retailer. The statement noted that Walmart, the world’s largest company by revenue, moves products to 200 million customers across more than 11,000 stores worldwide.
Walmart says customers can now order groceries online and pick them up at nearly 3,100 locations. The company already offers delivery at more than 1,600 stores around the country using human “associates” to drop off groceries. Though the current delivery system relies on the company’s employees, Walmart has invested heavily in robotics in recent years, introducing thousands of automated shelf-scanners, box-unloaders, artificial-intelligence cameras and other machines. By filling roles traditionally left for human workers, critics say the changes have come at the expense of workers’ job satisfaction and security.
“Walmart has invested heavily in its Grocery Delivery service, making it available to customers across the country,” Nuro’s statement added. “Partnering with Walmart gives Nuro a new opportunity to improve and expand our delivery services for the public, and represents an important moment for us as we continue to expand our reach and serve more customers.”
The Walmart delivery service will be carried out using Nuro’s self-driving Toyota Priuses, as well as R2, Nuro’s futuristic-looking, autonomous delivery vehicle that carries only products with no onboard driver or passengers.
For months now, as Nuro’s robotically piloted Priuses have been making deliveries across Houston, the vehicles’ sensors mapping the city. The faster Nuro’s vehicles map Houston’s notoriously chaotic roadways, the faster the company can refine its software and export its business model elsewhere.
The deliveries provide the company with valuable traffic data, and also insight into customer shopping habits. The company noted that the partnership with Walmart will increase its insight into customer shopping habits, giving it leg up on its competition by answering some fundamental questions about autonomous delivery.
“The big question for us is: Who is going to use this service, and how often will they do it?” Sola Lawal, a Nuro product operations manager based in Houston who formerly worked for Uber, told The Washington Post in November. “Our robots don’t care who they’re delivering to, but we want to understand how different demographics interact with and feel about the robots. Houston allows for this broad swath of experience in one city.”
Like Nuro, companies such as Amazon, Alphabet-owned Waymo, Robomart, General Motors’ Cruise division, Ford-affiliated Argo AI, Starship Technologies and many others are also rushing to deploy high-functioning autonomous vehicles for delivery and passenger transport, with some companies attracting major deals and billions in funding. Their goal is to earn public trust and offer real-life convenience, experts say, heightening their chances of securing a valuable foothold in a new era defined by autonomous transportation.
“The pressure is real,” David Syverud, head of robot operations at Nuro, told The Post last month. “And to be clear, it is a race in the AV space to deploy quickly and be the first to really get there.”