“We are like Boeing.” This exact sentence was said to me in separate, back-to-back meetings at CES with Robby and Robomart. Both are autonomous vehicle companies, both are at the forefront of the emerging mobile commerce trend, and both want to be like the storied jet maker (more on that in a minute).
We write a lot about the rise of delivery, whether it’s by human, drone, self-driving car or robot. But a straight-up delivery business is different from mobile commerce. Delivery is a one-to-one transaction. You order something, a restaurant or store puts that item in some kind of vehicle that travels to your door, drops it off and then at some point travels back to a central hub empty.
Mobile commerce, on the other hand, puts the store on the road. When an order is placed, the item still arrives, but it comes with a (small) store. This model is appealing for a few reasons. First, there is no down time for the delivery vehicles. They don’t have to travel back to a central hub and refill before making another delivery, so the vehicles are generally always in use.
Additionally, mobile commerce can encourage additional purchases. You may be a student at the University of the Pacific who just ordered a Pepsi by robot, but once it arrives, the container also holds snacks that may you want to impulse buy.
Finally, this store on the go also gives the retailer more data that is closer to the point of use. If you buy a Pepsi at the store, the store has no idea when you will drink it or what you’ll do with it. But if you order a Pepsi to be delivered to you at the library, or buy one from a mobile store outside your home, chances are good that you’ll consume it pretty soon thereafter. It’s not a perfect science, but it provides more data about consumer behavior for retailers and CPG brands.
But let’s get back to Boeing.
The reason both Robby and Robomart likened themselves to Boeing is because they are in the vehicle platform biz. They don’t really care what you want to sell or where you want to sell it, they just want to be the way you get it there. And the two companies are taking very different-sized approaches.
Robby builds small, autonomous rover robots on wheels. It leases the robots and software to brands who want to form a more direct sales channels with their consumers. In the case of Pepsi, the Robby bot has been outfitted with a cold side (using cold packs, not compressors) to keep sodas chilled and a side with no temp control for snacks like chips and snack bars. When an item is ordered, Robby delivers it, and if the consumer takes more stuff out, on-board computer vision keeps track of its inventory and charges that person accordingly.
Robby goes 20 miles on a charge and has a swappable battery, so it doesn’t have to be taken offline to charge.
Robomart, on the other hand, is thinking bigger. Robomart made a splash at CES 2018, and has been busy ever since. The company builds self-driving vehicles that are low-speed and smaller than a car (similar to a Nuro pod). They are refrigerated and can be customized to fit particular retail needs. The company says it has signed a deal with an East Coast grocer in the U.S. for a delivery pilot.
The Robomart holds more than Robby, obviously, and uses RFID tags to keep track of inventory and charge people. Robomart says this is because it will be carrying a lot of produce, and computer vision doesn’t work as well with fruits and vegetables. Robomart has a 55-mile range and travels at less than 25 mph. To appease regulators, even though Robomart is autonomous, it will at first be driven remotely by a teleoperator. Its business model also includes leasing vehicles and software to customers.
AutoX is similar to Robby and Robomart, but is taking a more hybrid approach. AutoX has regular self-driving sedans to make grocery deliveries, but it also keeps additional inventory in the backseat of the car in case the consumer wants to buy more.
Even the bigger players are getting involved in mobile commerce. Panasonic showed off its concept SPACe-Ce Mart mobile store at CES this year, and Toyota formed a joint venture with Softbank for a mobile platform that would include stores on the go.
Mobile commerce is poised to be huge, and while it may not go mainstream this year, with all this investment and activity, it looks like 2019 will be the year mobile commerce starts to get off the ground.