Weekly Brief: Walmart Joins Self-Driving Delivery Push

Want a sneak peek of the robot revolution?

Travel down to your local Walmart, where human employees are being replaced by robots for a range of activities. There’s the Auto-C self-driving floor scrubber, for instance, which hums around Walmart stores and cleans like a good old-fashioned janitor. There’s the Auto-S scanner, which waltzes down aisles and uses light sensors to scan shelves for missing items and then there’s self-driving cars, which Walmart is experimenting with for a host of possible applications.

Last week the company announced that it’s the first customer of a self-driving start-up called Gatik AI. If you haven’t heard of Gatik AI, that’s because the company came out of stealth mode last Thursday with $4.5M in seed funding, including from angel investor Lior Ron, who co-founded the self-driving truck company Otto that Uber later acquired for $600M. Gatik AI isn’t interested in self-driving trucks or in self-driving delivery bots that scoot along sidewalks up to your door. Instead, it’s focused on the sweet spot in between, known as “middle mile” deliveries.

Its fleet consists of light-weight vans and trucks built by Ford, souped up with Gatik’s self-driving technology and tasked with delivering goods on short hauls between businesses. Think from a food processor to a Walmart jumbo store. Walmart and Gatik didn’t divulge exactly what their relationship will look like, although Gatik says it will be starting services for Walmart in the next few weeks, presumably in pilot form although that too remains to be seen.

This isn’t Walmart’s first experiment with self-driving technology. Last year the company partnered with Waymo in Phoenix. Together they offered a service that allowed Walmart customers to place a grocery order on Walmart’s website and then receive a free ride in a robo-taxi, dubbed a “self-driving grocery chauffeur,” to pick up their order. In 2018, Walmart also launched a partnership with Ford in Miami to test self-driving technology for a direct-to-consumer grocery delivery service. Walmart kicked off an identical pilot with self-driving start-up Udelv in Phoenix.

Walmart isn’t alone when it comes to companies exploring how self-driving tech could help reduce the expense of moving goods over the long haul or for last-mile deliveries. A couple weeks ago I wrote about how the United States Postal Service (USPS) wants to use self-driving trucks to move mail around the US. Last week word broke that the USPS is looking at autonomous tech for yet another use: in its next generation of mail delivery trucks.

The organization is ready to pay $6.3Bn to an automaker to build autonomous mail rigs. Ford has put forth a proposal that would include autonomous technology. It wouldn’t eliminate the human operator; instead mail couriers would be able to sort mail while their trucks do the driving, thus eliminating time from their routes and improving overall efficiency. It remains to be seen which automaker the USPS goes with and if autonomous tech makes it into the final version. Nonetheless, it’s yet another reminder that self-driving delivery is becoming as popular a field as self-driving taxis.

Speaking of popular, last week was the TU-Automotive Detroit 2019 event, which drew more than 3,000 attendees to Motown to discuss the latest in automotive tech. The focus was safety, security and autonomy. Read here for a full recap of what you missed.

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