How the pandemic has sped up autonomous grocery delivery

Four tech firms say growing demand and a shifting regulatory environment are accelerating rollouts of drones and driverless vehicles.


Jeff Wells, GroceryDive

Oct. 14, 2020


For most consumers, autonomous grocery delivery has been more of a neat-to-have service than a need-to-have one. During the pandemic, however, when the desire for not just delivery but contactless delivery has grown rapidly, the idea of having a robot pull up curbside with milk, eggs, cereal and other goods suddenly sounds a whole lot more appealing.


That means that now, consumer demand, as well as the need for improved last-mile economics during an unprecedented digital sales boom, are fueling autonomous delivery. Tech companies like Nuro and Starship Technologies say their bots are working overtime delivering groceries and other goods. They’re accelerating the timelines for their pilot programs, working with local and national authorities to cut through red tape, and laboring to innovate quickly and keep up with the shifting market.


"We've seen grocery e-commerce in some cases double, and with our Kroger partnership that has more than doubled," said David Estrada, chief legal and policy officer at Nuro, which currently operates a pilot with Kroger across six ZIP codes in Houston.


Amazon and Walmart both recently launched drone delivery programs, shining a brighter spotlight on a futuristic service that promises to speed up delivery times and eventually bring down costs. But robo delivery comes with restrictions, including where vehicles can operate and how fast they can run.


“While sandwich delivery by robots has become a reality in several carefully chosen ZIP codes, each with low traffic and a generally well-kept infrastructure, there are plenty of towns and cities where delivery robots would face significant challenges just getting around safely,” read a recent assessment from the trade publication AutoWeek.


Autonomous delivery companies say the geographies where their robots can run is gradually expanding. Still, it’ll be a while before the technology will be scalable and cost-effective, company officials said.


"For us, one of the things we’ve really been pushing is how do we get the unit economics and the price point of these vehicles low enough," said Matthew Johnson-Roberson, co-founder of Refraction AI, whose vehicles are currently delivering groceries and restaurant meals in Michigan.


Here’s a look at four autonomous delivery companies, the progress they’ve made during the pandemic and the challenges that still lie ahead.


Nuro ...


Starship Technologies ...


Refraction AI ...


Deuce Drone ...


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