The robotic deliveries will start from one Walmart Neighborhood Market using autonomous Toyota Prius cars outfitted with Nuro’s proprietary self-driving software and hardware.

Walmart Inc., No. 3 in the 2019 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, and robotics company Nuro Inc. will test making grocery deliveries using driverless vehicles.

Nuro, which makes autonomous delivery vehicles designed to operate on public roads, says the service will start “in the coming months” in Houston, Texas. Autonomous deliveries initially will be available to customers who opt into the test program. The goal will be to expand robotic delivery to the general public later in 2020, Nuro says.

The robotic deliveries will start from one Walmart Neighborhood Market using Toyota Prius cars outfitted with Nuro’s self-driving software and hardware, a Walmart spokesman says. Those vehicles will each have a person on board. Later, the service will add Nuro’s R2—a custom-built delivery vehicle. The R2 carries only products with no on-board driver or passengers, but Nuro will have remote operational control of the unmanned vehicle. Like the modified Prius cars, Nuro’s robots operate on public roads.

Walmart to deliver groceries using autonomous vehicles

Nuro’s R2 vehicle carries only products with no on-board driver or passengers.

Walmart has not yet set a specific start date for the test program. The Nuro technology is just one of many Walmart is testing, the spokesman says.

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“We believe this technology is a natural extension of our grocery pickup and delivery service and our goal of making every day a little easier for customers,” wrote Tom Ward, Walmart’s senior vice president for digital operations, in a blog post.

Walmart currently operates 3,100 pickup locations for grocery orders made online and offers deliveries of such orders from more than 1,600 stores. The retail giant’s “online grocery footprint” employs more than 50,000 personal shoppers, Ward wrote.

Using the R2, a retailer’s employees load online orders into compartments of the vehicle, which then drives itself to a customer’s home. When the order arrives, the customer receives a notification from a mobile app that the self-driving robot is outside. The customer then uses a PIN to open the appropriate compartments and retrieve their order.

The retail chain chose to do the test in Houston because it’s a place with complex traffic patterns, which means grocery delivery could make a significant difference for customers, the Walmart spokesman says. The average Houston resident experiences a commute of around 60 minutes each way every day, and “we hope to give them some of their time back by offering this delivery service to some of them,” he says.

Retailers looking to use radical technologies like robotic delivery should tread carefully, says Arpit Jain, vice president of cross-functional delivery and capabilities at Nerdery LLC, a digital business consulting firm.

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These days, “technology is being looked upon to provide convenience—versus a decade or so ago when technology was being leveraged more so for solving problems only. If a company provides a solution using technology for convenience and it doesn’t work, it will end up having more negative effects than not providing that convenience in the first place.” Jain says.

Jain trusts that Walmart has done the kind of behind-the-scenes work needed to make robotic delivery work. But not all retailers are Walmart. “Companies working to provide [robotic delivery] should really pressure-test these solutions for a variety of ‘what if’ scenarios for consumers to make sure it’s ready for game time,” Jain says.

In teaming up with Nuro, Walmart joins Kroger Co. and Domino’s Pizza Inc., which also are testing Nuro’s autonomous delivery technology. Since late 2018, Kroger has used Nuro vehicles to deliver ecommerce grocery orders to customers in Scottsdale, Arizona. The grocery store chain later expanded the test to include Houston. Domino’s started testing the technology, also in the Houston market, in June.

According to Crunchbase data, Nuro has raised more than $1 billion from investors since it launched in 2016. In February, Nuro received $940 million in a Series B funding from the SoftBank Vision Fund, a London-based subsidiary of SoftBank Group. In January 2018, Nuro raised $92 million in a Series A round. The investors were Menlo Park, California-based Greylock Partners and China’s Gaorong Capital.

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