H-E-B will test a self-driving delivery van later this year that will serve the area near H-E-B’s Olmos Park store at 300 W. Olmos Drive. The San Antonio-based grocery retailer has partnered with California-based Udelv to create at least one autonomous van during the pilot phase, which will feature climate-controlled areas that can hold multiple orders of produce, frozen food products, and dry goods. The van will be able to operate both on city streets and on the highway.

“Our success starts with our people, who provide exceptional hospitality and drive us to open more engaging stores that offer a world-class shopping experience,” H-E-B President Craig Boyan said in a press release Tuesday. “We’re committed to winning through people and hiring more people, and we’re adding necessary skills to become both a better tech company and even stronger brick-and-mortar retailer.”

While the van itself is designed to be autonomous, the first phase of the pilot will have a driver on board to navigate San Antonio roads as the autonomous technology maps out the most efficient ways to travel around the Olmos Park area. The service will eventually be driverless.

An additional H-E-B employee will ride in the van and help transport groceries from the climate-controlled compartment to customers’ homes, said Julie Bedingfield, H-E-B spokeswoman.

According to a press release, select customers can sign up for autonomous delivery service if they have already used H-E-B Curbside from the Olmos Park store.

H-E-B declined to specify the date its pilot program would begin but said it is targeting a launch in the fall.

In April, Kroger, H-E-B’s biggest competitor in East and North Texas, began testing autonomous delivery in Houston.

Brittain Ladd, a former grocery industry executive, said although responding to Kroger’s testing of autonomous delivery in Houston was an important move for H-E-B to make, self-driving delivery vehicles are still far from effective. Self-driving cars still have a difficult time clearing road debris, getting in and out of driveways, and finding residences when the address is unclear or the route is poorly mapped, Ladd said.

“The technology works; the challenge is the mapping,” he said. “And there are still challenges with the fact that people are unpredictable.”

The grocery companies testing the technology also will have to solve for what Ladd called the longest yard – getting the groceries from the vehicle to the customer’s home. He said he does not envision autonomous delivery increasing in popularity until an accessory robot can take the groceries from the vehicle to the customer’s porch or inside their home.

Despite the obstacles, Ladd said it was important for H-E-B to show they are competitive with the grocery industry’s leading retailers when it comes to cutting-edge technology.

“They can’t allow Amazon or Walmart or Kroger or any other grocery chain to put out these press releases of how they’re testing autonomous vehicles or a new way to deliver groceries to the home,” he said. “H-E-B always has to show their customers, ‘That’s fine the other guys are doing it, but we’re doing it, too, and we have bigger plans.'”

H-E-B has rolled out a series of new e-commerce and technology initiatives in recent years, as high-tech companies such as Amazon and delivery apps such as Instacart and Shipt have become an increasingly popular method for grocery shopping. Through the H-E-B To You website, customers can order groceries online and pick them up at the store or have them delivered to their address. Other features in the testing phase include H-E-B Go, which is only available in two stores, but allows customers to scan their items with their phones and skip the checkout line.

In February 2018, H-E-B acquired Austin-based food delivery app Favor, and the startup has set up shop in a new East Austin headquarters for the retailer’s digital arm.

H-E-B and Favor have partnered to bring deliverable groceries to Texas.
Programs like H-E-B Curbside and Favor are changing the way people purchase and receive groceries. Credit: Courtesy / H-E-B

H-E-B’s delivery vans would be the first public-facing use of autonomous vehicles in San Antonio. The City, last year, sought information to test applications for autonomous vehicles as part of a short-term pilot program. San Antonio has not seen testing yet from some of the pioneers in the space such as Google’s Waymo.

Brian Dillard, the City’s Chief Innovation Officer, said Wednesday the City is targeting former U.S. Air Force base Brooks to test the technology. The City would partner with VIA Metropolitan Transit on an autonomous service that would transport residents in and around the Brooks mixed-use development. He said the City is interested to learn from H-E-B’s testing of self-driving technology.

“We’ll have conversations with H-E-B as they begin to … implement their autonomous vehicle solutions,” Dillard said. “We’ll work closely with them and their team to see how we can share discoveries and the studies they will have done.”

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), who chairs City Council’s committee on innovation and technology, said H-E-B’s entry into the autonomous vehicle space was only a matter of time.

“They know that e-commerce has changed the way people expect their products to be delivered,” Pelaez said. “Delivery of groceries by way of autonomous vehicle is the logical next evolutionary step in e-commerce. I’m encouraged that H-E-B is taking this on and staying ahead of the innovation curve.

“The true test of this technology’s success will be if the ice cream stays cold by the time it gets to my house.”

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.