On a seven-mile stretch of Arkansas roads this fall, retail giant and tech innovator Walmart began testing a new type of delivery truck: autonomous vehicles running a loop route that requires the truck to navigate intersections, obey traffic lights and merge on dense roadways. Notably missing? A driver. These trucks are the first ever on the roads without a safety driver.
The trucks are delivering grocery orders from a Walmart fulfillment center to a nearby Walmart Neighborhood Market grocery store in Bentonville, Walmart’s home base in northwest Arkansas.
Walmart teamed with start-up Gatik, based in Palo Alto, California, which has developed a fleet of light- to medium-duty trucks used for short-haul business to business logistics. The companies are also testing driverless trucks in New Orleans, Dallas-Ft. Worth and San Antonio markets; however, these trucks do have safety drivers still aboard.
The new service is one component of Walmart’s transition to a hub-and-spoke model that locates smaller fulfillment centers closer to customers. A single distribution hub will serve multiple nearby stores and pick-up points, which results in a higher number of repeat trips between fulfillment centers to grocery pick-up points.
INSTORE mag says that Walmart hopes that this new technology will help with speed and minimize inefficiencies, as well as combat driver shortages, and FOX Business reports that the “technology can reduce logistics costs by as much as 30% for a grocery business.”
Engadget notes that Walmart isn’t the first megaretailer to go driverless. In 2018, Kroger added driverless delivery vehicles to its fleet, teaming with self-driving startup Nuro and using a self-driving Toyota Prius fleet with safety drivers on board. In San Francisco, GM’s self-driving Cruise division launched a fully driverless robo-taxi service; however, there are many caveats to the service during these early testing phases: it is currently only available to GM employees between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., operating at a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour and only in clear weather.