Walmart Inc. came to dominate retailing through its mastery of logistics — the complicated choreography of getting goods from farm or factory to the consumer. But even the world’s biggest store doesn’t make money selling its wares online in the U.S., largely due to runaway shipping costs.
So Walmart is turning to robots.
On a drizzly morning earlier this month, Walmart’s U.S. chief Greg Foran led reporters to a curbside package pickup kiosk outside its supercenter in Rogers, Ark. Idling there were three Ford delivery vans outfitted with self-driving technology developed by a Gatik, a Silicon Valley startup charged with a trial run aimed at cutting Walmart’s middle-mile shipping costs in half. Going driverless in pursuit of profit is a “no-brainer,” Foran said.
As the buzz about human-carting robotaxis starts to short-circuit, an unheralded segment of the driverless future is taking shape and showing promise: goods-moving robovans. Rather than serving up hot pizza pies or deploying headless robots to carry groceries to the doorstep, robovans travel on fixed routes from warehouse to warehouse or to a smaller pickup point, transporting packages to get them closer, but not all the way, to consumers.
This may be the least glamorous part of the driverless delivery business, but the market for these monotonous “middle miles” could reach $1 trillion and may provide the fastest path to prosperity, analysts say.
“This area has the least number of obstacles and the most certain return on invested capital in the near term,” said Mike Ramsey, an analyst with consultant Gartner Inc. “If you’re looking to start a business where you can actually generate revenue, this has fewer barriers than the taxi market.”
Driving the demand is the boom in online shopping that has helped cause a severe shortage of truck drivers that tops 60,000 unfilled long-haul positions, according the American Trucking Associations. That has sent costs soaring for a job that is among the most dangerous due to the risk of wrecks and long periods spent on the road.
“This middle mile is the most expensive part of the whole supply chain; it’s a huge pain point,” said Gautam Narang, CEO of Gatik, which is attempting to automate Walmart’s “hub and spoke” warehouse system. “This fills a big gap in the market.”
From a technological standpoint, business-to-business delivery, or B2B, is the straightforward counterpoint to the complexities of autonomous ride-hailing and driverless delivery directly to consumers, known as business to consumer, B2C, or last mile. Robovans like those being put to the test at Walmart follow fixed routes over and over, reducing the chance of mishaps and increasing their time in service generating revenue. Many of these routes are already established using human drivers today, so there’s little need to map new paths and create infrastructure to load and receive the goods.