Kroger, Nuro Deploy Self-driving Cars For Grocery Delivery In Arizona

by Samuel Abasi Posted on August 17th, 2018

Scottsdale, Arizona, USA : U.S. supermarket operator Kroger Co. said it will start testing driverless grocery delivery on Thursday with technology partner Nuro at a single Fry’s Food and Drug Store in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Customers can shop for groceries and place either same or next day delivery orders via the grocer’s website or mobile app. There’s no minimum order but there is a flat delivery fee of $5.95.

“Kroger wants to bring more customers the convenience of affordable grocery delivery,” said Kroger Chief Digital Officer Yael Cosset, who added that the test will also gauge consumer demand for the service.

The first phase of the test will use a fleet of Toyota Prius cars equipped with Nuro technology. Those cars have seats for humans who can override autonomous systems in the event of an error or emergency. Nuro’s R1 driverless delivery van, which has no seats, will begin testing this autumn, the companies said.

“While we compete final certification and testing of the R1, the Prius will be delivering groceries and helping us improve the overall service,” a Nuro spokeswoman said.

Under the self-driving service, shoppers can order same-day or next-day delivery online or on a mobile app for a flat rate of about six US dollars. After the order is placed, a driverless vehicle will deliver the groceries curbside, requiring customers to be present to fetch them. The vehicles will probably be opened with a numeric code.

“We’re proud to contribute and turn our vision for local commerce into a real, accessible service that residents of Scottsdale can use immediately,” Nuro CEO Dave Ferguson said in a statement. “Our goal is to save people time, while operating safely and learning how we can further improve the experience.”

Nuro’s intent is to use its self-driving technology in the last mile for the delivery of local goods and services. That could be things like groceries, dry cleaning, an item you left at a friend’s house or really anything within city limits that can fit inside one of Nuro’s vehicles. Nuro has two compartments that can fit up to six grocery bags each.

“With the pilot, we’re excited about getting more experience interacting with real customers and understanding exactly what they want,” Ferguson said. “The things they love about it, the things they don’t love as much. As an organization for us, it’s also very valuable for us to have to exercise our operational muscle.”

Throughout the pilot program, Nuro will be looking to see how accurate its estimated delivery times are, how the public reacts to the vehicles and how regular, basic cars interact with self-driving ones.

Four out of five Americans would be interested in having groceries delivered, Ferguson says, but cost and inconvenient services mean just 2 percent do it regularly. “We think that there’s a massive massive opportunity.” And the little R1 might just be the robot for the job.

Nuro designed its first vehicle, the R1, to hold stuff, not people. The electric four-wheeler is about half as wide as your standard sedan and shorter than a Fiat 500. Even Ferguson admits it looks like a toaster, but he thinks it can be efficient enough to make moving stuff easier, safer, and cheaper than ever. And now, it’s time for this Mini-Me of robots to get onto the field and prove it can play with the big kids.

For the roboticist-run startup, that means it’s time to nail down the operations side of things. Nuro has done plenty of testing, but focus groups can’t replicate how the public will react. “We haven’t done the whole shebang yet,” Ferguson says. And the whole shebang involves real life customers getting their groceries delivered when they want them and without any robot-induced hassle. Nuro must figure out how to make sure its vehicles can always park or pull over safely.

Customers will be notified of the vehicle’s location and arrival status on an app, but anyone who has used Uber knows that getting a human driver to find you can be a problem—how do you help a robot? The R1 can carry 12 large grocery bags, what if someone orders 13 bags worth of stuff? (The next iteration will have room for 20, to satisfy even the most American of shoppers.)

Then, Nuro has to work with local, state, and federal regulators to ensure it has the right to roam the streets, which might be tricky since there’s no way to put a human safety driver inside the vehicle. Nuro will remotely monitor the fleet, but Ferguson didn’t say what sort of control its overseers will have over the vehicles. (Just about every self-driving car company is developing the capability to remotely control its vehicles, or at least have a human give them instructions when they get into sticky situations, and the tetchnique will likely become a legal requirement in at least some states.) To crack it all, Ferguson and Jiajun have been hiring folks to fill out the business and logistics side of Nuro, which now has more than 100 employees.

For Kroger, the partnership is a hedge against a future that might not be kind to stores that rely on customers showing up in the flesh. “We’re extremely confident autonomous vehicles will play a role in our business,” says Yael Cosset, Kroger’s chief digital officer. He sees delivery robots as a way to reach more customers at more affordable rates, but figuring out how to best deploy them requires practical experience. “We want to learn.”

Kroger and rival Walmart Inc. each have teamed up with autonomous vehicle companies in a bid to lower the high-cost of “last-mile” deliveries to customer doorsteps, as online retailer Amazon.com rolls out free Whole Foods delivery for subscribers to its Prime perks program.

Walmart and Alphabet’s self-driving car company Waymo are partnering to test a service that shuttles Phoenix shoppers to stores to collect online grocery orders.

(Top image: A self-driving Nuro vehicle parks outside a Fry’s supermarket owned by Kroger Co. as part of a pilot program for grocery deliveries, Scottsdale, Arizona, US, Aug.16, 2018.)

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Samuel Abasi

Samuel Abasi

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