Walmart begins milestone driverless deliveries, scaling online grocery biz

Walmart grows its online grocery distribution footprint while bringing cost and efficiency savings with autonomous vehicles.
10 November 2021 | 10 Shares

(Photo by GEORGE FREY / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Despite many players in an increasingly crowded space vying to be first-to-market, Walmart has become the first retail operation to provide truly driverless deliveries in the US. The hyperchain announced this week that it has been operating two autonomous box trucks, without any safety driver, along a delivery route in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Walmart’s ‘world first’ driverless deliveries are the result of a fruitful partnership with Silicon Valley start-up Gatik, which commenced fully self-driving operations in August. The box trucks have been running daily sans safety driver since the summer, traveling a seven-mile route every day to deliver online grocery orders to a Walmart Neighborhood Market grocery outlet, after picking up the items (that were ordered online) from a Walmart fulfilment ‘dark store’ – what is being referenced in supply chain circles as the middle mile.

The Walmart-Gatik partnership has been running since December 2020, following approval from the Arkansas State Highway Commission for autonomous trials to take place. The tests are part of the US’ largest grocery retailer’s plans to transition to a ‘hub and spoke model’ for online grocery deliveries: so-called ‘dark stores’ are situated closer to consumers, and used to service multiple retail outlets within specified distances.

“We’re thrilled to be working with Gatik to achieve this industry-first, driverless milestone,” Walmart senior vice president of last-mile Tom Ward said in a news release about the project. “Through our work with Gatik, we’ve identified that autonomous box trucks offer an efficient, safe and sustainable solution for transporting goods on repeatable routes between our stores.”

Driverless grocery deliveries for the middle mile might be the first to be commercially running, autonomous commercial vehicles are picking up steam to address long-haul freight and supply chain gaps.

Kodiak is one of a number of US-based tech firms exploring running cargo long distance along the US’ expansive rural highways, which have long been viewed as prime candidates to test autonomous trucks. Besides Kodiak, the likes of Waymo, Aurora, and TuSimple are sending autonomous transportation around parts of Texas and the US Southwest, and all have plans to expand from coast to coast.

For now, many of these trucking trials still have a safety driver onboard. But that is not the case with Walmart and Gatik, which did away with the safety driver over the summer and enabled fully driverless deliveries. Walmart says automating middle-mile transport has allowed store staff to focus on “higher level” tasks including packing customer orders and dealing with customer queries.

Since commencing commercial operations in 2019, Gatik has achieved a 100% safety record ​​across multiple operational sites in North America including Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Ontario in Canada. The company says its autonomous vehicles can reduce logistical costs by up to 40% for a grocery operation, which is ideal as the grocery business usually has very thin profit margins of between just 2% and 4%, as per data from research outfit Bain & Co.

“This milestone signifies a revolutionary breakthrough for the autonomous trucking industry,” said Gautam Narang, CEO and co-founder, Gatik. “Our deployment in Bentonville is not a one-time demonstration. These are frequent, revenue-generating, daily runs that our trucks are completing safely in a range of conditions on public roads, demonstrating the commercial and technical advantages of fully driverless operations on the middle mile.