Ocado has sent a self-driving truck trundling through the backstreets of Woolwich, south-east London, as part of the UK’s first trial of autonomous grocery deliveries.
The small vehicle, developed by Oxford-based Oxbotica, is spending 10 days shipping food and snacks to Ocado customers who live in the area, to test Ocado’s plans for its “Smart Platform” – a plug-and-play online shopping business that it wants to sell to grocery retailers around the world who hope to compete with the likes of Amazon and Walmart.
The trial is the latest evolution of Greenwich’s GATEway project, which initially involved Oxbotica’s autonomous driving technology being tested with small passenger vehicles on the borough’s waterfront near the former Millennium Dome.
Unlike Ocado’s current vans, which can store 80 grocery boxes – enough for 20 or more deliveries – and are staffed by a driver who delivers the groceries to customers’ doors and kitchens, the “CargoPod” only holds eight boxes, and requires recipients to leave the house to pick up their shopping themselves.
But it is designed for a different market, according to David Sharp, who oversees the Smart Platform programme for the company. He likens it to the difference between self-checkouts and staffed tills at a supermarket: it may not be quite as convenient, but it’s quicker, cheaper, and possible to scale up much more quickly.
While the van navigated flawlessly through the wide, largely car-free streets of Woolwich Arsenal, it still had to be accompanied by two human supervisors, who sat in its front two seats: one, from Oxbotica, to take charge if the automation systems made a mistake; and a second, from Ocado, to guide customers through the process of picking up their delivery.
The customer is notified when the CargoPod is loaded up, from a “mobile warehouse” located around a mile from their home, and then again once it has reached their front door. They then press a button to unlock their box and collect their shopping bag.
Both Ocado and Oxbotica hope the system will be ready for commercial launch by 2019.
If successful, the Ocado Smart Platform could prove crucial for the company, which was founded in April 2000 and has grown to a valuation of almost £2bn. It faces competition not only from established supermarkets in the UK, but also from US retail titan Amazon, which launched its own grocery delivery service in the UK in June 2016. This month, Amazon expanded its grocery portfolio by buying organic foods chain Whole Foods for $13.7bn (£10.7bn).
Ocado hopes that its Smart Platform offering, which lets other retailers outsource their online sales, will be key to beating the Seattle-based firm.
For partnering retailers, it offers an end-to-end integrated service, starting with a white-label app, and placing Ocado technology in their warehouses, shops and delivery vehicles. This month, the company announced its first customer for the platform, a European retailer that requested anonymity “to retain competitive advantage”.