Supermarkets are changing. But if Kroger can pull off what it announced today, it will make getting groceries feel like living in a science fiction movie.

It goes far beyond ordering your groceries online, or even having them delivered to your door. Instead, this is more like what might happen if Elon Musk decided to launch a supermarket.  

In short, Kroger announced Thursday it's working with an electric car startup called Nuro "to redefine the grocery customer experience for Americans by piloting an on-road, fully autonomous delivery experience."

More plainly: They're coming. Driverless cars that will deliver your groceries to your door. (Sometimes I wonder why press releases don't just say these things flat out.)

To me, this really does feel like the future crashing into the present. Yet Kroger insists that at least a test of the technology will be just around the corner--saying it will announce a "pilot market ... soon" and begin the test "this fall."

"Unmanned delivery will be a game-changer for local commerce," Dave Ferguson, co-founder of Nuro (and a former top executive in Google's self-driving car program), said in the press release. "Together with Kroger, we're thrilled to test this new delivery experience to bring grocery customers new levels of convenience and value."

Like every other experiment in automation and robots, the opportunity here comes down to cost savings. In a survey cited by The Wall Street Journal, a third of Americans say they won't try grocery delivery apps because they believe they'll be too expensive.

Kroger thinks driverless delivery could change the math. Details:

  • The test is slated for this autumn, but wide-scale driverless delivery is still "years away," according to the WSJ. When it does happen, it "would make such [delivery] services cheaper and easier to introduce in less densely populated parts of the country."
  • The driverless vehicles Kroger apparently wants to test don't look much like today's cars and trucks. Nuro has an R1 van that looks "like a rounded, silver lunch box," according to Business Insider.
  • This is the third time in a month that Kroger has announced something challenging Amazon (with Whole Foods) and Walmart for grocery store supremacy. Previously: investing $250 million in the U.K.'s Ocado Group "to run automated delivery warehouses and process digital orders," and buying the Home Chef meal-kit company, according to the WSJ.

So let's just think: If Kroger did pull this off, what would the grocery store of the future look like?

It might be 100 percent digital. There might not actually be a store, unless shoppers enjoy the actual experience of perusing produce and carting cartons to the car. It could also mean fewer employees, at least in customer-facing jobs. 

In other words, it would just be different, yet another of the 99 ways driverless cars will change the world

Published on: Jun 29, 2018