Walmart teams up with Nuro for self-driving deliveries pilot

Bolstered by new tech, continued growth in the online grocery space is key to the US retail giant’s strategy.
11 December 2019

A Nuro autonomous car is seen driving down a road in Scottsdale, Arizona. Source: AFP

As a bricks-and-mortar-first retailer, Walmart— the world’s largest retailer— would once have looked on the backfoot to e-commerce heavyweight Amazon. 

But, largely driven by the success of its online grocery business, Walmart is beginning to nip at the heels of Amazon and eBay in the online shopping sphere. 

In fact, online sales for the States’ third-biggest e-commerce firm (and the world’s largest retailer) grew at a rate of 41 percent last quarter. Its online grocery footprint now spans 3,100 pickup locations with deliveries coming from more than 1,600 stores.

Announced today (December 10), Walmart is now planning to take the success of its grocery deliveries arm to the next chapter, teaming up for a pilot with robotics and autonomous vehicle firm Nuro to deliver good to its customers’ doorsteps.

The announcement seems to be just one component of Walmart CEO Doug McMillon’s bid to “move faster” in order to continually widen its customer base and stay apace with (and ahead of) rivals. Nuro’s fully-autonomous R2 vehicles have no driver or operator— not even a seat for one. Walmart will pilot the vehicles alongside autonomous Toyota Priuses next year to customers who opt-in to the program. 

“Through the Houston-based pilot, Walmart aims to develop, refine and continue learning how to offer the best end-to-end customer experience,” said Tom Ward, SVP, Digital Operations for Walmart US. 

Ward acknowledged how its physical-first heritage has provided the infrastructure to lead in online groceries— which it can leverage to support the development of the wider business. 

“Our unparalleled size and scale have allowed us to steer grocery delivery to the front doors of millions of families— and design a roadmap for the future of the industry.”

Taking a reverse approach, Amazon has seen some success with the development of its checkout-less Go food stores and the acquisition of Whole Foods but witnessed slowing growth in regard to its Amazon Fresh delivery service. However, it’s far from ready to check out of the battle. 

The forthcoming pilot with Nuro is not Walmart’s first foray into driverless deliveries, however. In November last year, the retailer announced it was teaming up with Ford for a pilot based in Miami— it said tests would establish what kind of goods can feasibly be delivered, especially perishable goods. 

“Along the way, we’ve been test-driving a number of different options for getting groceries from our stores to our customers’ front doors through self-driving technology,” said Ward. 

“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.”

The tie-up is not new ground for Nuro either, which conducted trials with American grocery firm Kroger as far back as mid-2018. On the announcement, Nuro co-founder Dave Ferguson explained his own drive behind disrupting the last-mile delivery space. 

“We waste a lot of time running errands. Americans make a total of 400 billion vehicle trips a year. Of those, 45 percent are in the name of shopping and errands (to put this in perspective, commuting makes up only 15 percent of these trips).

“That’s the equivalent of over 40 thousand lifetimes every year. Not all of these trips are considered chores — but many are.

“With the help of robotics, we can significantly improve people’s day-to-day lives and transform local commerce. We can do better. Less time on errands, more time on life.”