Walmart is teaming with Waymo on a one-store pilot project in Arizona which will allow shoppers who have ordered groceries online for in-store pickup to be transported to and from the store in Waymo self-driving vehicles, according to the Walmart Today blog.
The pilot program will operate out of a Walmart store in Chandler, Arizona, and will involve Walmart shoppers who also are members of Waymo's "early riders" group, the blog post stated. The retailer did not say how long the pilot program would last, or if it might be expanded at some point.
The Walmart project is one of a series of partnerships that Waymo, the former autonomous driving technology division of Google, acknowledged this week with companies in several different industry segments, though Walmart was the only retailer mentioned, according to a CNBC report.
Retailers continue to flirt with autonomous technology. Sometimes it's in the form of flying delivery drones, robotic shopping carts or warehouse transport carts, and sometimes it's driverless vehicles that could be used for a number of applications, although delivery is a top candidate.
Not many retailers have made it as far as a pilot program. Amazon was part of Toyota's e-Palette alliance, announced at the beginning of this year to pursue the development of driverless vehicles that could be easily converted for several uses, but we haven't heard much about that effort of late. Other tests have been conducted by other retailers, but this one may be worth watching more closely, given the two companies involved and the nature of the application.
It's early days for retailers' exploration of driverless vehicles as a way to help shoppers get to stores. The option could be appealing for shoppers that don't have their own transportation as an option in addition to taxis, ride-sharing services or public transportation. Groceries can be bulky and difficult to transport if a shopper is catching a ride from someone else. It is possible consumers would take more advantage of these services if the retailer arranged a ride for them.
Maybe that's not what Walmart has in mind, however. The retail giant might just see a store-provided ride as a potential perk of ordering online, and a way to spark online grocery ordering and pick-up activity at a time when many retailers are competing to reinvent the grocery shopping experience. Not much is clear about where this pilot may go from here.
What is clear is that Walmart is pursuing a very limited pilot program at this point, involving only one store and a handful of customers. It's not a commitment to the future of driverless vehicles — a future that may lay a ways off —and may only be a small-scale fact-finding mission to see if the technology might prove useful.