If autonomous vehicles come into mainstream use, as some auto industry watchers think, the most important company name in leading that shift may not be a traditional carmaker.
And no, not Tesla either.
It'll be Walmart.
Not that General Motors, Ford and Tesla and all their competitors and suppliers aren't key to new vehicle technology. Obviously, those are the companies providing both the hardware — namely, cars — and software that will make them possible.
I'm not talking about bumpers and sensors and “the car as a mobile office space.” I'm thinking, instead, of what it will be that will change mindsets from “that's just some technology experiment” to “hey, that would come in handy.”
In July, Walmart Inc. and Waymo, the autonomous vehicle division created by Google owner Alphabet Inc., announced a new online grocery pilot project in which 400 daily users, known as “early riders,” near Phoenix can shop for groceries and pick them up via an autonomous vehicle.
It works this way: Selected participants order groceries online from one Walmart store in Chandler, Ariz. Walmart staffers get the items off the shelves and bag them.
Then, participants contact Waymo. The autonomous car can then pick them up, take them to Walmart to collect their groceries, then drive them home.
“They transport customers to and from pickup, and all the while, those customers can text, nap, work … you name it,” Walmart noted in a blog post announcing the project. “The purpose of all of this: to learn. … We're excited to see what this pilot and the future hold.”
And Walmart isn't alone. In August, nationwide grocery store chain Kroger said it would begin making deliveries via an autonomous Toyota Prius from its Fry's Food location in Scottsdale, Ariz. Kroger is working with startup Nuro.
Unlike with the Walmart program, shoppers don't have to even leave the house to get their milk and eggs. Instead, an autonomous car brings them right to the customer.
When I first read about Walmart's Arizona project, I didn't think much about it. After all, you still have to go to the store yourself. But during the Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Mich., other attendees put it into perspective for me.
Walmart is a very familiar name and one that is seen in almost every corner of the U.S. This holds the potential to bring autonomous cars directly to a place people recognize and uses them for a very familiar purpose.
“Think about what this means for the elderly,” said Nathan Bowen, vice president and general manager of Yanfeng Global Automotive Interior Systems Co. Ltd. “What if you're unable to drive and you suddenly have an option for mobility. Through [autonomous vehicle] technology, your mobility has returned.
“Then you start thinking about what this will mean for people who haven't been able to drive because of medical issues,” he added.
Yanfeng, like other auto suppliers, has rapidly been looking at what parts it will make for that future vehicle, but bringing together autonomous cars and day-to-day errands like grocery shopping makes it clear that future isn't too far away.
“It's really going to change not just the auto industry, but the world,” Bowen said.
And maybe that change will start at an Arizona Walmart.
Rhoda Miel is the news editor at Plastics News. Follow her on Twitter @PNRhodaMiel.