Waymo’s Driverless Cars Will Take Some Shoppers to Walmart

Waymo’s driverless cars in Phoenix, the first large, self-driving fleet to ferry passengers around a US city, will help customers with some specific tasks beginning later this week.

The Google-backed autonomous vehicle business will give driverless rides to Walmart and to a shopping mall in pilot projects it set up with partners. In other partnerships, the AVs will help consumers pick up and return rental cars, get around when their own cars are in the shop and make it to meetings when they’re staying at a hotel in the area.

Although driverless vehicles may someday be used for just about any kind of trip, they’re starting out largely in targeted deployments for limited uses. Some of the first AVs to carry passengers have been shuttle buses in defined areas, such as an employee shuttle now running in Detroit’s central business district.

Since last year, Waymo has been giving rides on demand around the Phoenix area to a select group of more than 400 early riders. It plans to offer an app-based commercial service by the end of this year. But others will soon have the chance to experience driverless rides in places they may not have expected them.

Some Walmart customers who order groceries online will get Waymo rides to the store to pick them up and take them home. They’ll also get discounts on the groceries, Waymo said in a blog post on July 25. That’s a twist on the emerging trend of driverless grocery deliveries that should make life easier for shoppers while also doing Waymo a favor: Ordinary people will get to experience driverless cars and potentially come to trust them.

In another joint offering launching this week, Waymo will partner with commercial real estate company DDR to drive shoppers and diners to Ahwatukee Foothills Towne Center in suburban Chandler, Ariz.

Waymo is also targeting travelers, who tend to be big users of conventional ride-hailing services and taxis. Some business travelers who are frequent guests at the Element Hotel in Chandler will be able to take driverless cars on some trips, such as commutes to the office.

Avis Budget Group and AutoNation, which are already supporting Waymo’s self-driving fleet, are also going to start offering driverless rides to their customers.

Avis currently charges, refuels and prepares Waymo’s cars for driverless rides. It will start using the Waymo vehicles to pick up and drop off some customers at their rental cars. The service will start with two locations in Chandler. AutoNation, a car sales and service company, services Waymo’s fleet. It will begin offering drivers an autonomous car instead of a loaner while their car is in the shop.

Working with partners that have national or international footprints should help to prepare Waymo for expansion once it starts looking beyond this year’s launch in Phoenix, as the company points out in its blog.

Plus, any way the company can get ordinary consumers into driverless cars will help it to build up knowledge about how consumers feel about AVs and what they want to use them for. Waymo has already learned enough to compile a list of the ten most popular kinds of trips taken by early riders, which it used to put together the partnerships announced on Wednesday.

Car repair shops and retail stores came in at fifth and sixth place, respectively, with supermarkets at number eight. The top four destinations were work, restaurants, schools and bars.

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

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