CHICAGO -- While everyone is focused on a future of autonomous vehicles (AVs) ferrying passengers around, a smaller technological revolution is already advancing and shaping consumer expectations of convenience. And it’s one that promises to bring the c-store and its forecourt directly to the customer.
In September 2018, Gray Taylor, executive director of c-store tech standards group Conexxus, Alexandria, Va., highlighted the incredible potential of delivery robots, also known as terrestrial drones.
“It’s going to be easy out of the gate, cheap to operate, and it’s going to require a really rudimentary level of intelligence for it to function,” Taylor said. “Because of its mass, it’s not going to be seen as one of those things that can cause a huge accident if it malfunctions.”
Here's a look at several technologies that are bringing the c-store to consumers' homes ...
Behold sidewalk delivery bots
Fast forward to the first few months of 2019, and Taylor’s bullishness on bots appears to be well-founded. In January, PepsiCo partnered with San Francisco-based Robby Technologies to launch a small fleet of rolling coolers, dubbed Snackbots (pictured), at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. The university is serving as a test site, with three to five Snackbots on campus at any time. Drinks and snacks available for delivery through Snackbot include Pure Leaf Tea, Lifewtr, Baked Lay’s potato chips and Sun Chips.
The little robots can move more than 20 miles on a single charge and are not hindered by rain or darkness.
Also, toward the end of January, Seattle-based Amazon announced it had begun testing its own terrestrial drone, known as Scout, for select home deliveries in Snohomish County, near Seattle. Unlike Snackbot, Scout makes deliveries only during daylight hours. The bots are being accompanied by an Amazon employee for now, but the plan is to eventually send the sidewalk robots out on their own.
And San Francisco-based Starship Technologies, a veteran in the realm of rolling coolers, launched its own fleet of drones at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., through which students can order from nearby Blaze Pizza, Dunkin’, Starbucks and Second Stop, an on-campus grocery store.
Rolling coolers such as these have the potential to make delivery relatively easy for customers, who simply open an app on their phone and enter their order to summon a bot to bring whatever treat they would like. While some of these pilot programs limit what customers can purchase, such as PepsiCo’s at the University of the Pacific, which constrains choices to healthier options, the idea is that a retailer deploying the bots could use them to transport anything as long as it fits inside the bot.
10 million--Number of miles that have been driven autonomously by Waymo vehicles, according to Waymo
Operating the bots creates an entirely new set of challenges for retailers or other organizations managing them. For most of these pilot programs, whoever is managing the bots must decide whether to impose a delivery fee. The bots may also require a person to accompany them while they are being tested, making their autonomy moot for the time being. And while the rolling coolers can move themselves, they can’t pack themselves. That requires human labor, too.
Terrestrial drones may not be as large as passenger-carrying AVs, but the self-driving technology behind their guidance systems is essentially the same. And while self-driving vehicles have been thrown into the wilds of the open road—for example, Waymo’s self-driving cars have been hit by rocks, had their tires slashed or even been forced off the road—these rolling coolers are more secure in the relative safety of college campuses or designated communities.
C-Stores on wheels
There are larger terrestrial drones in pilot that might one day share the road with Waymo and other human-carrying AVs.
Kroger has been making deliveries with custom-built AVs from Mountain View, Calif.-based Nuro (pictured at right)since December 2018 at its Fry’s Food Stores supermarket chain. Nuro’s R1 rolling delivery pods are considerably larger than sidewalk delivery bots but smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle. Like their sidewalk-bound counterparts, Nuro’s bots strictly deliver goods, not people.
Through the new delivery program, one Fry’s Food Stores unit in Scottsdale, Ariz., is offering same-day or next-day delivery with Nuro vehicles for a flat delivery fee of $5.95, no minimum order required. This service didn’t appear out of nowhere: Nuro and Kroger began testing delivery routes and strategies using modified Toyota Prius vehicles in August 2018. More recently, Nuro raised $940 million in financing from the SoftBank Vision Fund.
Also, Quincy, Mass.-based Stop & Shop recently signed on for a pilot program with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Robomart in the Boston area, which will start this spring. Robomart sells the equivalent of small Amazon Go-style frictionless stores on wheels (pictured below) to retailers.
Consumers simply open an app and push a few buttons, which will summon a Robomart vehicle packed with items that consumers can pick from its shelves.
The retailer that owns the vehicle acts as a distribution center for the vehicles, while Robomart provides support and maintenance.
$940 million--SoftBank’s financial investment in Nuro and its development of AV delivery, per Reuters
For the initial pilot, Stop & Shop is free to stock the rolling stores with anything it can fit inside, but the grocer has opted to focus options on produce and meal kits for the time being. The retailer can set any delivery fee, or even no fee at all, as it sees fit. Stop & Shop has not indicated if it will charge a delivery fee.
Robomart’s obvious use case is for on-the-go produce shopping, but Robomart founder and CEO Ali Ahmed says the model is flexible. “We can have pretty much any retail category in a Robomart. It’s a temperature-controlled vehicle. But our major focus is around perishable foods,” he says.
Robomart vehicles in the initial Boston-area test will be remotely piloted by human staff to meet local safety regulations. That said, Ahmed and his team have been preparing the vehicles to have self-driving capabilities.
Ahmed sees self-driving delivery vehicles like Robomart as the next step in AV technology.
“I believe very strongly that Robomart’s vehicles—without passengers—will be deployed en masse in the next few years before you see autonomous taxis en masse,” he says.
The rise of the mobile forecourt
Over the past few years, mobile fuel delivery services have grown in number, and they’ve now attracted the investment of the industry’s biggest players. In 2018, Irving, Texas-based ExxonMobil invested in fuel delivery provider Yoshi, while Royal Dutch Shell is testing its own fuel delivery service, Shell TapUp, near its U.S. headquarters in the Harris County and Fort Bend areas around Houston.
The Houston TapUp pilot program is an extension of a similar program in the Netherlands that Shell piloted more than two years ago, says Dan Arbour, general manager of Shell TapUp for the Americas. “When you look at the on-demand market in North America, it is significant and it continues to grow,” he says.
For Arbour and the team behind Houston’s TapUp program, the service is about saving customers time and getting more Shell fuel to more customers.
The fuel delivery service currently offers fuel and carwash services, in addition to tire-pressure checks and minor maintenance for B2B customers.
TapUp vehicles (pictured) deliver fuel and services to small operational fleets or work with a company to fi ll up its employees’ cars in the parking lot while they work.
$13.7 million--Amount in Series A funding for on-demand fueling and vehicle maintenance provider Yoshi, according to CrunchBase
Arbour and his team are focused on building the program in Houston for now, but they’re open to expanding to other U.S. markets. “We’re always reviewing markets that are open and available, both for consumer interest and regulatory hurdles, but right now we’re just focusing on the Houston market,” he says.
TapUp services only gasoline-powered vehicles for now, but the company has its eye on future alternatives, a space where Shell has been active overseas. “We are looking at new energies and alternative energies such as biofuels, hydrogen and even electric vehicles that are in the market,” Arbour says. “We’re reviewing which way is the right delivery technology to service those customers.”
All these delivery programs—from the sidewalk-bound Snackbots to the self-driving Nuro vehicles and Shell’s TapUp fuel delivery—are in testing or pilot stages. None of them have made enough waves in the market to achieve “disruptor” status just yet. But as the on-demand economy evolves to encompass services beyond simple meal or grocery delivery, c-store retailers will have even more opportunities to bring their products direct to consumers’ doors.