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Ford, Walmart test self-driving grocery delivery service

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 14, 2018

This June 1, 2017 photo shows a Walmart store in Hialeah Gardens, Fla. (Alan Diaz / Associated Press)
This June 1, 2017 photo shows a Walmart store in Hialeah Gardens, Fla. (Alan Diaz / Associated Press)
By Phoebe Wall Howard Detroit Free Press

Ford Motor Co. is partnering with Walmart to test home delivery services early next year in an effort to learn consumer expectations that will shape development of driverless vehicle technology, the Dearborn-based automaker announced Wednesday.

While the partnership between the companies has begun, delivery of Walmart customer goods in Florida’s Miami-Dade County won’t begin until next year.

The two companies will test out the concept as part of an existing grocery-delivery partnership between Postmates and Walmart. Ford vehicles will eventually be mocked up to appear autonomous and simulate the process of consumers retrieving their groceries without the help of a human driver.

Ford plans to use the drivers to deliver purchased goods to Walmart shoppers who will have no interaction with the drivers. The customer experiences will provide Ford a better understanding of what customers want as Ford technology teams develop robot cars to deliver goods.

“When you order online or with the Walmart app, it will thank you for your order and ask if you would be interested in participating in the project,” said Alan Hall, communications manager for Ford AV LLC. “These are random customers helping us develop our autonomous pilot project.”

Meanwhile, Walmart is trying to compete with, which is aggressively stepping up its delivery services and has talk about using drones. Walmart posted on its corporate website, “For a Walmart customer who has just started using Grocery Pickup, it might seem like shopping can’t get much easier – just order online, pull up to a parking space, and wait for an associate to load the items.”

While Walmart has made no commitment with Ford in the long term, the alliance is significant.

“Joining forces with Walmart automatically taps a huge pool of customers and will help provide all sorts of scenarios for testing,” said Ivan Drury, senior analyst at Edmunds.

Stephanie Brinley, principal analyst at IHS Markit, agreed.

“Ford is already looking at how people interact with autonomous delivery vehicles. This is an expansion of a program already started there, but it applies to a different type of delivery. Hopefully, in doing testing, they can find where opportunities and challenges might be. For Walmart, it’s kind of a no-brainer,” she said.

Brinley said: “Walmart needs to look at changes in consumer expectations. They need to understand just as much as the automaker needs to understand.”

Ford is collaborating with various local and national companies to deliver flowers, tacos, dry cleaning and other products, said Brian Wolf, director of business development for Ford AV.

“Now, it’s time to explore how grocery delivery can help expand access to fresh food and other retail items for people all over the country,” he said.

Bloomberg contributed to this report.

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