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Waymo to Trial Self-Driving Shopping Shuttles With Walmart, DDR

Waymo, the autonomous vehicle arm of Google-parent Alphabet Inc., is dipping another toe in passenger transport.

Beginning this summer, it will begin trials with Walmart Inc. and DDR Corp. to shuttle passengers in self-driving minivans to their retail stores. It’s starting small, operating only in a suburban region of Phoenix, Arizona — where Waymo’s already running tests — and with only select passengers invited into the free program. Yet it’s a first hint of how Waymo plans to commercialize the nascent technology beyond ride-hailing.

In the trials, Waymo’s Chrysler vans will ferry consumers to Walmart locations after they buy items on the retail giant’s website. That’s coming as Walmart has prioritized e-commerce and delivery as a way to compete with Inc. For DDR, the shopping mall operator, Waymo will offer rides to and from one particular outlet in Phoenix, the Alphabet unit said in a statement.

Waymo also cut a deal with Element Hotel to offer shuttles for guests around Phoenix. And it’s expanding existing partnerships with AutoNation Inc. and Avis Budget Group Inc. in the same city. Those latter two companies will begin to loan certain customers Waymo self-driving vehicles.

As with the shopping deals, the Waymo cars will only be doled out to Phoenix residents under its “early rider” program, an experiment to warm consumers up to the novelty of self-driving cars. Waymo, which recently announced it had clocked 8 million autonomous miles, is widely considered the technical front-runner in the market. The company said it has more than 400 people participating in the program for now, and plans to begin a paid self-driving service in Phoenix by the end of 2018.

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“While these are Metro Phoenix-specific partnerships today, these businesses are national and what we learn from these programs will give us a network of partners when we launch in new cities down the road,” Waymo said in its statement.

A Waymo spokeswoman added that the partner companies are paying for the ride service but declined to share financial terms.

The deal with Walmart is one of several recent ties between Alphabet and Walmart. Google recently teamed up with the retailer on advertising and voice-based services, a move to rival mutual foe Amazon. Google once plowed money into its own shopping delivery service, but has recently turned more towards retail partners to handle that aspect.