Walmart, Argo, and Ford are Testing Delivery AVs in Three Major Cities

Get ready for a lot of hyphens: The world’s largest retailer is rolling out its first-ever multi-city autonomous driving service. 

This week, Walmart announced it will team up with Ford Motors and Argo AI, an autonomous vehicle platform startup, to start testing a self-driving delivery service in three major hubs: Miami, Austin, and Washington, D.C. At least one human safety driver will still be in the loop. 

If this sounds familiar…You might be thinking of the retailer’s past forays into self-driving tech, which are plenty. But the new announcement marks Walmart’s first multi-city, grocery-focused bet on the tech. And these aren’t small markets, either. 

  • Earlier this year, Walmart kicked off a grocery-delivery pilot with Cruise in Scottsdale, Arizona, and a middle-mile delivery pilot with Gatik in Bentonville, Arkansas. Before that, it had also partnered with Nuro and Waymo.

“They’re doubling down, they’re tripling down, and they’re putting their money where their mouth is,” Grayson Brulte, cofounder and president of Brulte & Company, an autonomous mobility consulting firm, told Emerging Tech Brew. 

Looking ahead…Walmart is limiting testing to just one retail location in each of the cities, but if successful, we’ll likely see it expand the offering to multiple stores. And since Walmart is one of the only big-box retailers with a presence in all 50 states, so it has a unique opportunity to combine autonomous delivery with passenger rides, Brulte said. 

“If you can combine grocery with the ability to move people, that’s a very interesting business,” he said. “Walmart’s merely in the first inning of a nine-inning game of where they’re going on their strategy with autonomy.”

As featured in Morning Brew Emerging Tech on September 17, 2021

Why Drivers are Zoning Out Behind the Wheel

If you haven’t bought a new car in a few years, you might be surprised at how many driving tasks are now automated — speed control, braking, lane-keeping and even changing lanes.

Why it matters: Carmakers keep adding more automated features in the name of safety. But now authorities want to find out if assisted-driving technology itself is dangerous by making it too easy for people to misuse.

  • The more sophisticated the assisted-driving system, the more complacent drivers can become, abdicating their own responsibility for operating the car.

  • This can lead to avoidable crashes and dangerous incidents that undermine public confidence in automated driving.

  • Even with the latest technology, drivers still need to watch where they’re going and be prepared to take the wheel; fully autonomous vehicles are years from widespread deployment.

Context: Federal regulators have taken a mostly hands-off approach to automated vehicle technologies, offering only guidelines for fully driverless cars like robotaxis, which are under development and evolving.

  • Now the Biden administration is stepping up its scrutiny of assisted-driving systems available today, like Tesla’s Autopilot.

What’s happening: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said recently that companies must report serious crashes involving driver-assistance and automated-driving systems to authorities within a day of learning about them.

  • This week NHTSA opened a formal investigation into Tesla Autopilot after a series of crashes involving emergency vehicles.

  • The agency said it had identified 11 crashes since 2018 in which Tesla vehicles operating on Autopilot struck emergency vehicles, despite the presence of flashing lights, flares or road cones.

  • At least 17 people were injured and one person died in the crashes, according to NHTSA.

Between the lines: While the focus on crashes with emergency vehicles is fairly narrow, NHTSA will be looking carefully at where and how Autopilot functions, including how it identifies and reacts to obstacles in the road.

  • Importantly, it will also examine how Autopilot monitors and assists drivers, and how it enforces the driver’s engagement while the system is operating.

Be smart: Tesla Autopilot is not an autonomous driving system. It is an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) that allows the car to maintain its speed and stay in its lane.

  • Tesla is gradually adding more features to a package it calls “full self-driving,” but such labels are confusing to consumers because they misrepresent the car’s capabilities, safety advocates say.

What to watch: NHTSA will consider whether there is a defect in Tesla’s Autopilot system due to a “foreseeable misuse” of the technology and whether all of its 765,000 affected cars should be recalled.

  • “If NHTSA takes this all the way and decides there’s a defect, I think it will up the bar for the industry, and make people more confident in these technologies,” David Friedman, vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports, tells Axios.

  • But that could be a “double-edged sword” if it results in stricter AV regulations that hurt U.S. competitiveness, warns AV expert Grayson Brulte.

The bottom line: Authorities are reviewing not just whether assisted-diving technology works, but also its effects on human behavior.

As featured in Axios on August 18, 2021

There’s a Shortage of Truckers, but TuSimple thinks it has a Solution: No Driver Needed

Right now, there’s a shortage of truck drivers in the US and worldwide, exacerbated by the e-commerce boom brought on by the pandemic.

One solution to the problem is autonomous trucks, and several companies are in a race to be the first to launch one. Among them is San Diego-based TuSimple.

Founded in 2015, TuSimple has completed about 2 million miles of road tests with its 70 prototype trucks across the US, China and Europe. Although these are simply commercially available trucks retrofitted with its technology, TuSimple has deals in place with two of the world’s largest truck manufacturers — Navistar in the US and Traton, Volkswagen’s trucking business, in Europe — to design and build fully autonomous models, which it hopes to launch by 2024.

No sleep

TuSimple’s latest road test involved hauling fresh produce 951 miles, from Nogales, Arizona to Oklahoma City. The pickup and the dropoff were handled by a human driver, but for the bulk of the route — from Tucson to Dallas — the truck drove itself.

“Today, because the system is not fully ready, we have a safety driver and a safety engineer on board at all times when we’re testing, but we drove in full autonomy: the driver wasn’t touching the wheel,” said Cheng Lu, TuSimple’s president and CEO.

The journey was completed in 14 hours versus the usual 24 with a human driver, mostly because a truck doesn’t need to sleep. “In the US, a driver can only work 11 hours a day. We simply had a handoff when our first pair of drivers had to stop because they reached their 11 hours of operation,” said Lu. That, of course, negates the advantage of an autonomous system, so the idea is that once TuSimple’s trucks hit the market, there will be no need to have anyone onboard.

Unlike self-driving cars, which are a still a way from being commercially available, TuSimple trucks won’t be required to operate in bustling city traffic, but only on stretches of highway that have been thoroughly mapped via the company’s own software.

“We collect data from the roads, and we create this very detailed, high definition map of each route. That adds another layer of safety for the vehicles,” said Lu. As a result, TuSimple’s trucks will only be able to self-drive along these pre-mapped trade corridors, which Lu calls “virtual railroads,” and nowhere else.

According to the company, in the US 80% of goods travel through just 10% of the nation’s trade corridors, so even selective mapping allows for capturing a large portion of the business. TuSimple is currently mapping routes between Arizona and Texas, and plans to have mapped routes across the nation by 2024.

Its plans are dependent on state legislation, however, because currently some states do not allow for testing of autonomous trucks on public roads.

Happier drivers?

The technology will add about $50,000 to the cost of a truck, making the final price roughly $200,000. According to Lu, that’s still cheaper than paying for a human driver.

“If you take $50,000 and divide it by 1 million miles, the average lifespan of a truck, that means you’re adding five cents per mile. But you’re saving the cost of a human driver, which based on average US wages is about $80,000 to $120,000 per year — or 80 cents to $1.20 per mile. Today, the direct labor cost is about 50% of the cost of operating a truck,” he said.

That doesn’t mean driverless trucks will take away jobs, according to Lu. By focusing on the “middle mile,” rather than on the pickup and delivery of the goods, TuSimple believes it can create new freight capacity without creating new demand for drivers, while at the same time protecting existing jobs. “A UPS driver is dropping off 200 packages a day — that’s not what autonomy is meant for. We believe that every driver will be able to retire as a driver, even if they enter the workforce today,” said Lu.

Instead, TuSimple aims to take over the routes between terminals and distribution centers, which involve long stretches of monotonous driving.

“Take Phoenix to El Paso: that’s a six-hour drive. A person cannot make the round trip, because it’s more than 11 hours. But the truck can go back and forth all day, the most mundane job that drivers don’t want to do. That means you free up that human driver to do the first and the last mile (pickup and delivery). They get to work a full day, which is a more efficient use of their time, and they get to go home at night to their family,” said Lu.

No distractions

Although Lu says that the reliability of both the software and the hardware still needs to be increased, TuSimple is planning its first fully autonomous tests, without a human safety driver in the cabin at all, before the end of the year. The results of such tests will indicate whether the company can meet its goal to launch its own trucks by 2024. Lu says that 7,000 have been reserved in the US alone.

TuSimple has prominent competitors, such as Google spinoff Waymo and Uber-backed Aurora, but those are working on a wider range of self-driving vehicles, including passenger cars. TuSimple is working exclusively on driverless trucks, like US companies Plus and Embark.

Grayson Brulte, an autonomy expert at consulting firm Brulte & Co., believes TuSimple is on the right track. “The biggest competitive advantage that TuSimple has over its competitors is that their technology was purpose-built for trucking. They’re not trying to port an autonomy system built for passenger vehicles in dense urban environments to trucking or to build a virtual driver which can both drive passenger vehicles and class-8 trucks. These are different skills and different systems altogether,” he said.

Removing the human element on long trucking routes has other benefits. The company says its trucks react 15 times faster than human drivers, and can see farther down the road, even at night.

“In the US every year there are about 5,000 fatalities involving trucks, and most are due to human error,” said Lu. “The truck doesn’t get tired, doesn’t watch a movie or look at a phone. It doesn’t get distracted.”

As featured in on July 15, 2021

Alphabet’s Waymo Raises $2.5 bln in First Fresh Funding in a Year

June 16 (Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) self-driving unit Waymo said on Wednesday it raised $2.5 billion in its first fresh funding round in a year, after a string of defections of executives rekindled concerns about the technology struggling to scale up.

The announcement came a day after General Motors Co’s (GM.N) majority-owned Cruise self-driving car subsidiary said it would gain access to a $5-billion credit line.

Self-driving startups are racing to build war chests to develop and commercialize technology, an expensive and time-consuming process. 

The funding led by Alphabet and other existing shareholders is the second outside funding for Waymo, which last year raised $3.25 billion in its first external investment round since its inception 2009.

Waymo has been widely viewed as the leader of the self-driving race, but attaining the holy grail of full and safe automation remains challenging as it faces growing competition from rivals backed by legacy automakers.

“There’s no greater challenge in artificial intelligence than building and deploying fully autonomous technology at scale,” Dmitri Dolgov and Tekedra Mawakana, Waymo’s co-CEOs, said in a statement.

The duo became co-CEOs after John Krafcik stepped down in April, followed by departures of the chief financial officer and other senior officials.

Waymo, which offers driverless rides hailing service in limited areas in Phoenix, has this year applied for permit for commercial deployment in San Francisco.

It has also expanded into the trucking segment, testing goods transport services using autonomous trucks.

“Self-driving startups are unlikely to be anywhere near profitable for many years to come. They need to raise the capital, in order to fund that expansion into the operational side,” said Sam Abuelsamid, Principal Research Analyst at Guidehouse Insights.

IPOS for self-driving startups would be an opportunity for investors to recoup their losses, he said.

Self-driving startup Argo AI, backed by Ford Motor Co (F.N) and Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE), plans to have another funding round before pursuing a public listing next year. 

Waymo said the capital would be used for advancing Waymo Driver, the company’s autonomous driving technology, and to grow Waymo’s team, the company said. (

According to investor website PitchBook, Waymo, is valued at just over $30 billion. Alphabet did not immediately comment on the unit’s latest valuation.

Participants in this latest round include AutoNation, Magna International, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Fidelity Management & Research Company, as well as new investor Tiger Global.

“The latest Waymo funding round clearly demonstrates that there is a healthy investor appetite for self-driving technologies,” said Grayson Brulte, president at consultancy Brulte & Co.

“I do think investors are getting more confident after the successful TuSimple IPO,” he said.

As featured in Reuters on June 16, 2021

Waymo, Cruise seek permits to charge for self-driving car rides in San Francisco

BERKELEY, Calif., May 11 (Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s Waymo and rival Cruise have applied for permits needed to start charging for rides and delivery using autonomous vehicles in San Francisco, state documents reviewed by Reuters showed, setting the stage for the biggest tests yet of their technology in a dense urban environment.

Neither company revealed when they intend to launch services. But they detailed contrasting deployment plans, with Waymo starting with “drivered operations” and Cruise expecting to deploy vehicles without humans behind the wheel.

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has yet to decide on the previously unreported applications made by Waymo on Jan. 19 and by Cruise on March 29, according to the documents. The agency had no immediate comment on Tuesday.

The efforts come at a turning point for Waymo, which Google launched over a decade ago. Waymo has given paid, driverless rides hailed through its app in suburban Chandler, Arizona, since 2019. But it has failed to scale up Arizona operations as quickly as analysts once envisioned.

Its longtime chief executive, John Krafcik, stepped down in April and was replaced by two co-CEOs.

Cruise, backed by General Motors Co, Honda Motor Co Ltd and SoftBank Group Corp, has focused on San Francisco since its beginning. It said in the permit application it has logged 2 million autonomous driving miles (3.22 million km) in the city. Waymo said it has had over 83,000 autonomous miles in its proposed deployment area, according to its application.

“You have a faster path to meaningful revenue in dense urban environments such as San Francisco than in the suburbs such as Chandler,” said Grayson Brulte, a consultant who advises companies around autonomous mobility strategies.

Waymo and Cruise could not immediately be reached for comment.

The companies would not be the first to obtain one of two permits required to operate robotaxis for hire in California. Silicon Valley startup Nuro in December became the only company to secure a DMV deployment permit. Nuro in March announced an unspecified investment from Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc, which said it was interested in new delivery systems.

A DMV official wrote to Nuro in March asking whether it intended to make deliveries for the fast-casual chain in California, records show. The results of a scheduled meeting on April 16 are unclear.


If Waymo and Cruise secure DMV approval, they would next need a permit from the California Public Utilities Commission to begin charging passengers.

Until now, self-driving cars in San Francisco and Silicon Valley primarily have been used on a test basis even though the vehicles – with whirring lidar gear on their roofs – have become an increasingly common sight. Cruise and Waymo plan to maintain some limits during commercial operations as public concerns grow over the safety of self-driving systems.

Waymo said in its application it would have a safety driver in its hybrid Chrysler Pacifica minivans and all-electric Jaguar I-Pace SUVs. They would operate around the clock, offering rides or transporting goods on roadways with posted speed limits of up to 65 mph in San Francisco and in the northern part of bordering San Mateo County.

Waymo said it may switch off autonomous mode in specific areas such as freeway ramps and construction zones, or for heavy rain and wet roads.

Cruise said its service hours would be late evening to early morning with speeds of up to 30 mph, according to the documents.

When ready for commercial deployment, the company would receive $1.35 billion from SoftBank’s Vision Fund as part of an earlier investment agreement.

The timeline for revenue-generating deployment of self-driving vehicles has been pushed back repeatedly.

“It’s an incredibly difficult thing that we’re trying to solve for,” said Timothy Papandreou, a former Waymo employee who now leads consultancy Emerging Transport Advisors.

This year, Waymo also has been discussing collaborating with San Francisco transportation authorities and university labs to secure an unspecified U.S. Department of Energy grant “to investigate the use of AVs to provide first-/last-mile transit service” in San Francisco, according to public records seen by Reuters.

(Reporting by Paresh Dave in Oakland, Calif., and Hyunjoo Jin in Berkeley, Calif. Additional reporting by Jane Lanhee Lee in Oakland, Calif. Editing by Joe White and Matthew Lewis)

As featured in Reuters on May 11, 2021