Walmart partners with Ford on autonomous vehicles

November 14, 2018 12:00 CET

Ford Motor Co. and Walmart Inc. have started a joint pilot to explore how they can use self-driving vehicles to deliver groceries and other consumer goods.

The automaker made the announcement Wednesday. The project has begun in the Miami area, where Ford has set up operations for a business revolving around autonomous vehicles that executives expect to launch commercially in 2021.

Over the next several months, Ford and Walmart will join forces to understand each other’s operations and identify which goods are best for automated delivery. They’ll examine vehicle configurations or modifications needed to meet customer demands.

“Like us, Walmart believes that self-driving vehicles have an important role to play in the future of delivery, and that true success comes from first learning how individuals want to use them in their daily lives,” said Brian Wolf, business lead in Ford Autonomous Vehicles, a subsidiary set up to handle the automaker’s self-driving business ventures. “Together, we’ll be gathering crucial data about consumer preferences and learning the best way we can conveniently connect people with the goods they need.”

Ford has conducted ride-hailing and delivery test operations since February in Miami, completing more than 1,000 deliveries while working with partners that range from national pizza companies to local dry-cleaning businesses.

One of those partners, delivery platform Postmates, will play a crucial role in the Ford-Walmart collaboration. Walmart has used Postmates and other networks to deliver groceries. Separately, Ford has worked with Postmates on vehicle dispatch and routing systems in its Miami pilot.

Because Ford and Walmart have worked with Postmates, the companies intend to use that infrastructure to get their pilot “up and running quickly,” according to Ford.

Walmart deliveries

Delivery figures to play a key role in Walmart’s future. As the retail behemoth competes with Amazon, which already offers fast home delivery to consumers, Walmart must figure out a way to match that convenience. The company has grocery delivery options available in 800 stores across 100 urban areas nationwide. The number of stores that offer delivery is expected to double next year.

This isn’t Walmart’s first automated-vehicle partnership. This year, the company began working with Waymo on a pilot from a store in the Phoenix area. Customers are brought to the store to retrieve their groceries in one of Waymo’s autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans.

“For retailers like Walmart, it will be crucial to figure out how they’ll be able to offer a better customer experience for automated deliveries, to basically find a way to survive and succeed in 21st century retail,” said Sam Abuelsamid, senior transportation analyst for research firm Navigant. “Developing these partnerships with Ford and Waymo and others is crucial, and they need to do it now to understand what’s going to work and what’s not going to work.”

More modifications?

Together, Ford and Walmart will examine what vehicle modifications would be necessary for grocery delivery, in which orders tend to be larger and more varied. They’ll also see how many individual orders can be supported on a single trip, and what compartments are needed onboard to ensure orders are secured.

Ford has been developing a vehicle, expected to be unveiled soon, with its self-driving services in mind.

While there are no plans in place, it is conceivable that if Ford, Walmart and Postmates find success in Miami, they could replicate operations in other markets, such as Washington, which Ford has announced will be the second city where it will set up commercial operations involving autonomous vehicles.

You can reach Pete Bigelow at pbigelow@crain.com.

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