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Walmart Moves Forward With Self-Driving Trucks for 'Middle Mile'

Expanded autonomous vehicle use in Arkansas, pilot test in Louisiana on tap
Walmart self-driving truck
Photograph courtesy of Walmart

Walmart is expanding its trial of autonomous box trucks for "middle mile" delivery, the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer said Dec. 15. 

In 2019, Walmart began testing use of the trucks for delivery between a fulfillment center and a Neighborhood Market in Bentonville. The trucks were operated in autonomous mode but had a safety driver present. Now, confident in results from the pilot—the trucks have logged more than 70,000 miles along a 2-mile test route, the company said—Walmart is giving the OK for the box trucks to run driverless in Bentonville starting in 2021.

In addition, Walmart announced it will begin a trial of the autonomous trucks along a 20-mile route between New Orleans and Metairie, La., early next year. That test will have trucks running between a Walmart Supercenter and a designated alternative pickup point for customer orders. As with the initial trial run in Bentonville, the Louisiana test will have a safety driver in place in the vehicles. Palo Alto, Calif.-based software company Gatik is providing the tech behind the vehicles. 

Ninety percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart, the company noted in a news release. Still, for customers who may seek a more-convenient option for picking up their online orders—on the way home from work, for example—alternative pickup locations could provide additional flexibility. Just last week, Walmart noted that it is expanding delivery to neighborhood bodegas in Mexico, and offsite pickup of grocery orders is an established phenomenon for other global retailers.

In Canada, for example, Loblaws introduced order pickup from lockers at train stations in Ontario in 2018. (Also of note: In November, Gatik announced it's partnering with Loblaws on expansion of driverless delivery vehicles in that country.) Leading U.K.-based supermarkets debuted the same transit-pickup service back in 2014. Adding in the driverless component—having autonomous vehicles run a continuous loop between stores or fulfillment centers and these locations—could prove an efficient way for Walmart to expand its alternative-pickup-point offering. 

"This unlocks the opportunity for customers who live further away from our store in New Orleans to benefit from the convenience and ease of Walmart’s pickup service," Tom Ward, senior VP of customer product for Walmart U.S., said in the release. 

Still, for retailers and tech providers alike, driverless delivery can come with a host of logistical, regulatory and financial headaches, making it a tough nut to crack. Earlier in December, Uber announced it was selling its autonomous driving unit. 

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