The cargo could be consumer packaged goods and other groceries from retailers ranging from Walmart to Kroger, or it could be perishables, such as fresh produce, or hot meals from restaurants.
There is long-haul trucking, midrange or regional distribution, and last-mile delivery, which gets meals and other goods to consumers' doorsteps or items from the warehouse to the loading docks of a grocery store.
Sidewalk success story
The fastest progress has been in last-mile deliveries of perishables for restaurants and grocery stores, partly incentivized by how third-party human deliveries of restaurant meals, necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, eat up revenues, Davenport said.
As opposed to self-driving road vehicles, ground-delivery bots, including cooler-shaped sidewalk robots, are booming in particular. This is in part because "companies fear accidents from AVs based on automobiles, and liability insurance costs are really high," Davenport said. "So if you take a smaller vehicle, moving much more slowly, you radically reduce the risk profile."
But available technology can propel AVs only so far in delivery. "Anything in this space needs to be grounded first and foremost in a consumer need, a tension that we can meet," said Andre Moraes Sr., a senior director of digital for PepsiCo Foodservice.
For example, PepsiCo's test of a self-driving "snackbot" called Hello Goodness at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., "identified the need for ease of accessing snacks and beverages on the go within a college campus and met it with a solution that had a low footprint, no interference and fit well within the campus space," Moraes said.