The Longest Yard: Using Autonomous Vehicles for Delivering Groceries

Make no mistake—autonomous vehicles will become commonplace for use by retailers and food companies to make deliveries. ANGELO MERENDINO/AFP/Getty Images

Ask any executive from Amazon, Walmart, Kroger, Albertsons or executives from other grocery retailers what the Holy Grail of last-mile delivery for groceries is, and odds are high the answers will be the same: groceries being delivered by an autonomous vehicle. Intuitively, many individuals will immediately understand that the value to grocery retailers is that delivering groceries by an autonomous vehicle (which requires no driver) is cheaper, much cheaper. What most individuals don’t know is that delivering groceries and other products in an autonomous vehicle creates one of the biggest challenges in logistics—something I call ‘the longest yard.’

If Only Grocery Bags Could Walk

Imagine you’re a mom at home with two sick children. It is cold and raining outside and its also late at night. Thankfully, you can order food and over-the-counter medicine online to be delivered at no cost because an autonomous vehicle will make the delivery. Sound good so far? Unfortunately, you live in an apartment on the 12th floor. The closest the autonomous vehicle can park to the front of the apartment building is one block away. Across town in the suburbs, a busy dad is at home with four kids, including an infant. He, too, had to order groceries and some over-the-counter medicine for delivery. Cars can pull up in front of the home or park in the driveway.

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Like clockwork, the autonomous vehicle arrives as scheduled to both customers. Now answer this question: How does the mon with two kids (she can’t leave the kids alone) get the groceries out of the autonomous vehicle without getting herself, her kids and the groceries wet? How does the dad in the suburbs retrieve the groceries without getting himself or his groceries wet?

What I just described is the Achilles’ heel of products delivered by autonomous vehicles—how to get the products from the vehicle to the customer in an apartment or home. Presently, the only option available is for a customer to walk to an autonomous vehicle to retrieve what they ordered. (It is a problem confronting Kroger as it tests deliveries made by autonomous vehicles. Domino’s Pizza is also testing deliveries of its food using autonomous vehicles. Kroger and Domino’s are using the autonomous car company Nuro for their testing. Nuro cars can be seen here.)

If only grocery bags could walk from the autonomous vehicle to the customer.

Science Fact, Not Science Fiction

Although still in their infancy, autonomous vehicles are science fact and not science fiction. Make no mistake—autonomous vehicles will become commonplace for use by retailers and food companies to make deliveries. However, the question remains: How do you solve the longest yard?

I believe the answer lies in not trying find a vehicle-specific solution. For example, designing a robotic mechanism that rides in an autonomous vehicle capable of retrieving groceries or food from the vehicle and transporting the product to the customer. Although I’m certain such a mechanism can be designed and implemented, I believe it makes more sense to create an ecosystem capable of meeting the overall e-commerce needs of customers.

While the digital face of this Kiwi autonomous package delivery robot is adorable, it would not be able to help meet the overall e-commerce needs of customers. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

E-commerce and online grocery/food ordering and delivery will only continue to increase. The challenge is that there isn’t a good solution for customers to receive parcel packages, food and groceries. Retailers, restaurants and food companies want to leverage autonomous vehicles for deliveries, but they don’t have a solution for solving the longest yard. Therefore, I recommend companies involved in all aspects of e-commerce and grocery/food delivery work together to solve the problems. Specifically, I recommend the following:

I do not presume to have the best ideas, but I certainly can make the argument that what I described should be evaluated and piloted. I don’t see the value of creating increased costs and complexity for consumers when it comes to a solution for safely delivering packages, groceries and food. (As I state in this article, perishable products always require a cold chain.) Consumers want parcel packages delivered in such a manner that they can’t be stolen. Creating a solution that meets all the needs of consumers is what I recommend.

The longest yard can be solved. The question that remains to be answered is who will do it first?

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