They may not yet have the run of our roads, but autonomous vehicles are already delivering the goods—literally.
A self-driving van transported groceries to customers in London earlier this summer, dutifully dropping off foodstuffs directly to doorsteps all over town as part of a short-term trial of the technology.
Reminiscent of a large, mobile footlocker, the prototype is the brainchild of U.K. tech firm Oxbotica, which has teamed up with the online supermarket business Ocado to fulfill the deliveries.
After choosing from a number of items online, customers must simply wait for their purchases to arrive in the brightly graphic vehicle, which includes 8 large cargo bays—4 on each side—with numbers that light up to let customers know which door their order is behind.
It may feel like a pressure-free version of “Let’s Make a Deal,” but the technology isn’t just fun and games—it has the potential to change the very way we manage the grocery industry.
With the Internet playing middleman, Ocado can ignore the need for brick and mortar stores, generating deliveries from directly within its warehouses—a development that could help make the service cheaper for users, and eventually remove the need for large markets all together.
That new-age model may be especially appetizing here across the pond, where online powerhouse Amazon recently finalized a $13.7 billion deal to purchase upscale grocery chain Whole Foods. The move was widely looked at as a way for the retail giant to compete against global juggernaut Walmart, the current U.S. grocery sales leader, and push its own consumer delivery services.
Amazon has already made a foray into that arena, running a U.K. pilot program last year that used drones to drop off the goods. And with fulfillment centers in the U.S. within 20 miles of nearly a third of the population, even a small number of autonomous trucks could help Amazon reach millions of customers (and act on some of its highly-touted promises, like one-hour delivery).
On its quest for greater vertical integration, it’s easy to see how the company could adopt automotive prototypes like those used in the London trial. The additional vehicles would give Amazon not just an air force but boots on the ground, opening up its drop-off capabilities to nearly any location.
What’s not as obvious is how the company—or any others looking to start remote deliveries—will get the public onboard. Amazon alone has spent the better part of a decade failing to inspire customers to order its grocery selections online.
In the end, the company may need to rely on extreme deals to tempt the masses, looking for those who would rather pinch pennies than squeeze the Charmin.