Walmart announced that it has been using autonomous driving technology to cover a 7-mile route daily since August near its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. The purpose of Walmart using self-driving trucks is to streamline its online grocery delivery business. Driverless technology is also being tested by grocery chains Kroger and Albertson’s.
The program is the result of a partnership between Walmart and Silicon Valley startup Gatik. In Bentonville, groceries are loaded onto a Gatik autonomous box truck from a Walmart fulfillment center and delivered without a safety driver across a 7-mile continuous loop.
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Meanwhile, Gatik brands itself as an “autonomous delivery network for the middle mile.” It’s currently a privately held company, founded in 2017. Its founder is CEO Gautam Narang, who stated, “Taking the driver out is the holy grail of this technology.”
In Gatik’s hub-and-spoke model for grocery delivery, store fulfillment centers, or “dark stores,” are usually closer to consumers than larger distribution centers and can serve several retailers. Gatik provides transportation for the middle segment of the process and moves goods from the warehouse to either a fulfillment center or retailer.
Gatik claims that its self-driving trucks can reduce logistics costs by up to 30 percent for online grocery businesses. The cost reduction would be beneficial considering that online grocery shopping has increased in popularity. Bain & Company’s research says that grocery businesses usually operate on small margins from about 2 percent to 4 percent.
Narang stated that self-driving technology can help solve some of retailers’ problems with labor shortages. By reducing operating costs and increasing efficiency, some of the supply chain issues will have less of a financial impact.
How do Walmart’s self-driving trucks work?
The autonomous vehicle program for Walmart, implemented near its headquarters in Arkansas, first passed in December 2020. The Arkansas State Highway Commission approved the program of self-driving trucks. At first, the trucks launched with a safety driver in the vehicle, but the driver was dropped over the summer.
Since August, Gatik has been operating two autonomous trucks for Walmart continuously for 12 hours a day on the same 7-mile loop. Online grocery orders are loaded onto the truck from the “dark store” and taken to a nearby Walmart grocery store.
Tom Ward, Walmart’s senior vice president, said of the partnership, “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.”
Walmart also said that associates in the stores will have more freedom to focus on higher-level tasks like picking groceries, packing online orders, and assisting customers thanks to the autonomous truck program.
In addition to the Bentonville pilot program, Walmart is working with Gatik in the New Orleans area. That program currently uses electric box trucks with a safety driver.
Other grocery chains are using self-driving trucks
In 2018, supermarket chain Kroger also started working on a self-driving vehicle program and partnered with vehicle startup Nuro. It has piloted a “last-mile” delivery service in the Houston area.
Similarly, Albertson’s has started testing autonomous last-mile delivery with another vehicle startup, Tortoise.