Kroger Supermarket Chain Will Trial Driverless Delivery Vans

Driverless delivery vans may get invited to Thanksgiving dinners in one US city this year if supermarket giant Kroger and a Silicon Valley startup get a planned trial on the road.

The nation’s largest food retailer plans to deliver groceries in small, fully autonomous electric vehicles starting this fall as part of a pilot deployment in a market to be named soon. The vans, made by Nuro, in Mountain View, Calif., are smaller and narrower than most passenger cars and have no place for a driver.

Delivery may become one of the early, limited use cases that get autonomous vehicles into commercial deployment before privately owned, general-purpose AVs come to market. Toyota and Ford have both targeted this segment with their self-driving efforts: Ford plans food delivery pilots with Postmates and Domino’s, and Toyota is designing a flexible platform called the e-Palette for use in applications including delivery, pop-up stores and even hotel rooms.

The economics of shipping, more than the gee-whiz factor of riding in robotic cars, may make AVs a more compelling proposition in the short term. Risks may be lower, while the immediate rewards may be higher, analyst Doug Newcomb of Newcomb Communications and Consulting told The Connected Car.

“It really comes down to consumer convenience,” Newcomb said. As shoppers depend more on delivery, cutting out the driver could deliver savings for stores and customers. And carrying groceries rather than people sidesteps some of the legal, liability and consumer reluctance issues that come with self-driving passenger services, he said.

Kroger and Nuro aren’t yet saying much about how the pilot will work. Shoppers will be able to place orders for same-day delivery using Kroger’s ClickList grocery pickup service and an app from Nuro.

ClickList currently lets customers order items online ahead of time and pick them up at the store.

The startup’s diminutive van, which weighs less than 1,000 pounds and looks like a dwarf minivan without windows, may help to foster consumer acceptance, Newcomb said. It has a windshield in front, even though there’s no driver to look through it, and a pair of cargo doors on each side that open gullwing style.

The vans will probably stick to fairly low speeds on local streets, which should also make people more comfortable with them, Newcomb said. People may be more likely to accept Nuro’s vehicles than the sidewalk-roaming robots promoted by companies like Starship Technologies, which go where motor vehicles aren’t usually seen.

However, AVs without passengers still need all the elements required to safely navigate streets, including cameras, Lidar and mature software, he said. It’s likely the Nuro vans are prepared for the limited travel they’re destined for, Newcomb said.

The Kroger deal, Nuro’s first with a retail partner, is a big win. Kroger has 2,800 retail food stores under several names, including Food 4 Less, Ralphs and Smith’s. Kroger and other US grocery chains now face delivery competition from Whole Foods, which Amazon acquired last year. That chain now offers free two-hour delivery for Prime members in some areas and this week launched discounts for members in some regions.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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