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Walmart Taps Ford, Argo AI for Biggest Driverless Pilot Yet

Walmart keeps plugging away at driverless delivery trials, now working with Ford and autonomous vehicle technology company Argo AI to deploy a last-mile delivery service in three cities.

The service will use Ford Escape hybrid self-driving test vehicles equipped with Argo AI’s self-driving system to deliver Walmart orders to customers in Miami, Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C. The retail giant, which recently revamped its ocean freight strategy, says this is the first time it is piloting autonomous delivery across multiple cities at a time.

Argo’s cloud-based infrastructure, which is designed to work with partners’ business operations, will integrate with Walmart’s online ordering platform to route orders and schedule package deliveries to customers’ homes.

“Our focus on the testing and development of self-driving technology that operates in urban areas where customer demand is high really comes to life with this collaboration,” Argo AI founder and CEO Bryan Salesky said in a statement. “Working together with Walmart and Ford across three markets, we’re showing the potential for autonomous vehicle delivery services at scale.”

The commercial service will be available to Walmart customers within defined service areas of the three markets and will expand over time, with initial integration testing slated to begin later in 2021.

This isn’t the first time Walmart has tested self-driving delivery with Ford, with the companies first collaborating on a test program with delivery service Postmates in Miami in 2018.

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Earlier this year, Walmart expanded a self-driving experiment with Gatik, which specializes in providing self-driving delivery trucks for the “middle mile” of the supply chain, to test a 20-mile route outside New Orleans. The pilot, which included a safety driver in the car, delivered items from a Supercenter to a Walmart pickup point, a designated location where customers can collect their online orders. The companies initially partnered on a test in Bentonville, Ark. at the end of 2019.

Walmart has a keen interest in autonomous delivery, having invested in all-electric self-driving tech company Cruise after partnering on a delivery pilot in Scottsdale, Ariz. It has also run pilots with various other companies in the space, including Nuro in Houston, Udelv in Surprise, Ariz., and Google spin-out Waymo in Chandler, Ariz.

As consumer expectations continue to shift to next-day or same-day delivery, especially in urban areas where there is a higher concentration of drivers and consumers, the Argo and Ford collaboration aims to further Walmart’s knowledge of how autonomous technology can enhance the last mile, while also optimizing logistics and operations.

Given the headaches brought to both retailers and customers by the supply chain constraints over the past year, last-mile delivery will be especially important if other areas of the chain continue to face bottlenecks.

“We’re excited to expand our autonomous delivery efforts in three new markets alongside Argo and Ford,” Tom Ward, senior vice president of last mile delivery, Walmart U.S., said in a statement. “This collaboration will further our mission to get products to the homes of our customers with unparalleled speed and ease, and in turn, will continue to pave the way for autonomous delivery.”

Aside from autonomous trials, Walmart has given the last mile considerable attention in recent years, teaming up with third parties including Instacart, Doordash, Roadie and Postmates to get groceries to the shoppers’ door as quickly as possible. The retailer recently launched a B2B delivery service, GoLocal, that enables other merchants to leverage Walmart’s gig workers.

Walmart’s latest pilot comes as Argo and Ford are both “aggressively” preparing for large-scale autonomous operations across a broad footprint of U.S. cities, according to Scott Griffith, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles. Argo AI is jointly owned by Ford and Volkswagen.

“Pairing Walmart’s retail and e-commerce leadership with Argo and Ford’s self-driving operations across these multiple cities marks a significant step toward scaling a commercial goods delivery service that will ultimately power first-to-scale business efficiencies and enable a great consumer experience,” Griffith said in a statement.

Most recently, Argo and Ford have been testing self-driving technology in Pittsburgh, Detroit and Palo Alto, Calif. The two parties have operated pilots in Miami and Washington, D.C., since 2018 and in Austin since 2019. The companies partnered with Lyft this year to break ground on an autonomous ride-hailing network with the goal to deploy at least 1,000 self-driving vehicles over the next five years.