Walmart, Ford test AV delivery

A woman unload a delivery from a Walmart-Ford autonomous delivery vehicle.

Written by James Shea

Ford, in conjunction with Walmart, is testing autonomous delivery in two U.S. cities and plans to begin collecting data in a third.

The project has been several years in the making. The company announced in 2018 that it planned to begin development of a commercial autonomous vehicle operation with the Ford Escape Hybrid. The project is being done in conjunction with autonomous vehicle developer Argus AI, a Pittsburgh-based company in which Ford acquired a majority stake in 2017. Autonomous vehicle tests started in 2018 in Pittsburgh, Detroit and Palo Alto, Calif. Austin, Texas, was added in 2019.

Early delivery testing

In 2018, Ford and Domino’s Pizza, in partnership with Postmates, began making deliveries with Ford simulated autonomous vehicles. Ford and Domino’s had worked together previously on a project to design a vehicle specifically for delivery. For that project, the vehicles were made to look autonomous but driven by a human driver. The goal was to see how customers interacted with the vehicle. After the vehicle reached its destination, a window opened in the rear of the vehicle and the customer pulled the pizza out of the vehicle.

“As delivery experts, we’ve been watching the development of self-driving vehicles with great interest as we believe transportation is undergoing fundamental, dramatic change,” said Patrick Doyle, Domino’s president and CEO at the time. “We pride ourselves on being technology leaders and are excited to help lead research into how self-driving vehicles may play a role in the future of pizza delivery. This is the first step in an ongoing process of testing that we plan to undertake with Ford.”

One of the biggest challenges for autonomous delivery is what is called “the last 50 feet.” How do customers take food out of the vehicle and into their homes? For the 2018 tests, vehicles were outfitted with AV equipment but driven manually.

“The last 50 feet of delivering goods is a real challenge,” Jim Farley, executive vice president and president of global markets for Ford, told CNBC in 2018. “This will help us better understand how customers interact with vehicles when there is a delivery by an autonomous-drive vehicle.”

Fully autonomous testing

That project ended in 2018, but Ford has begun fully autonomous deliveries. Last year, the company announced it would begin testing autonomous delivery through a partnership with Walmart. The program uses Argus technology and a Ford vehicle.

“Argo and Ford are aggressively preparing for large-scale autonomous vehicle operations across a broad footprint of U.S. cities,” said Scott Griffith, CEO, Ford Autonomous Vehicles & Mobility Businesses at the time of the announcement. “Pairing Walmart’s retail and e-commerce leadership with Argo and Ford’s self-driving operations across these multiple cities marks a significant step toward scaling a commercial goods delivery service that will ultimately power first-to-scale business efficiencies and enable a great consumer experience.”

Since the announcement, Ford and Walmart have been doing autonomous vehicle deliveries in Miami and Austin. It will soon begin testing Walmart deliveries in the Washington, D.C., area as well.

Ford Motor Company spokesperson Whitney Pineda said Ford is not able to release any information about the testing. The company plans to share delivery data “at a later date.”

“Ford’s goal is to build an autonomous delivery ecosystem that enables businesses, including restaurants and grocery providers, to deliver goods to customers reliably at lower cost,” Pineda said. “Ford sees its role in autonomous delivery as bringing all of the pieces together needed to enable an autonomous delivery service for customers. To do this, Ford is coupling its automotive experience to provide an autonomous vehicle – Ford Escape Hybrid – integrated with a best-in-class self-driving system from Argo AI; the fleet operations solutions needed to support a delivery fleet, including predictive maintenance and infrastructure; and strong relationships with commercial customers.”

She added that Walmart and Ford are continuing to work on the problem of the last 50 feet with delivery. They are looking at multiple solutions across the various testing regions. She said Ford’s role in autonomous vehicle delivery is bringing the pieces together. Through various partnerships, the automotive company can help companies create an ecosystem for autonomous deliveries to take place and be successful.

“Ford’s goal is to work with Walmart and Argo AI to create the best customer experience for our merchant partners and end-users to support the last 50 feet of delivery,” Pineda said.

Walmart grows delivery ecosystem

Walmart, for its part, sees autonomous delivery as part of a larger ecosystem of last-mile delivery. The company has been building out its in-store delivery capabilities and is now offers delivery at thousands of stores. It says it plans to hire 3,000 delivery drivers. The company is also exploring drone delivery and autonomous freight delivery.

It’s all part of an effort to reduce delivery costs and provide more value to the customer.

“As we continue to create new delivery options for customers and members, and new capabilities … we add density to the last mile,” said Tom Ward, chief eCommerce officer, Walmart U.S. “With more density comes more opportunities for drivers, and more opportunities result in increased speed. This means we can get customers and clients their items even faster, all while helping lower costs. It’s a happy cycle.”

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