On an increasing basis, we are hearing of many different companies, not typically associated with motor vehicles, getting involved in the technology of Autonomous vehicles or Self-Driving Cars. Companies such as Google, and Apple, have recently been granted patents on different technologies associated with Autonomous vehicles. So I was not surprised to see that one of the largest retailers in the world, is also jumping on that band wagon. In a Google Alert email I have set up for Patents, the top article of the day yesterday was by DigitalTrends, which reported that Walmart was granted a patent that could bring self-driving shopping carts to its stores.
Although news sources are incorrectly reporting that the patent has issued, the USPTO did, in fact, publish Walmart’s US Patent Application 2016/0260161 for a Shopping Facility Assistance Systems, Devices and Methods on September 8, 2106. In other words, Self-Driving Shopping Carts. According to the patent application, the system will utilize a series of docking stations, sensors, motors and cameras to offer consumers the ability to “hail” a shopping cart using an app on their smartphones, much like they would a taxi or Uber and that upon completion of use, the system will somehow be able to recognize abandoned carts within the store or in the parking lot and will be able to manually return itself to a docking station for use by another consumer.
Self Driving Carts?
The invention is not in and of itself a new kind of shopping cart. In fact, shopping carts will not change at all. Rather, there will be small Roomba-like motors that will actually connect to the bottom of the cart and move it from place to place.
The first claim of the published patent application is as follows:
1. A system for bringing a shopping container to a customer in a shopping space comprising: a plurality of sensors; a plurality of motorized transport units; and a control circuit communicatively coupled to the plurality of sensors and the plurality of motorized transport units, the control circuit being configured to: receive a shopping container request from a user interface device associated with the customer; determine at least one available shopping container among a plurality of shopping containers based on data collected by the plurality of sensors, the at least one available shopping container being empty and not used by another customer; select an available shopping container from the at least one available shopping container based at least on a location information of the user interface device; select a motorized transport unit from among the plurality of motorized transport units to transport the available shopping container; and provide instructions to the motorized transport unit to bring the available shopping container to the customer.
Questions To Consider
This seems like something that could be quite handy and would allow for more employees to be available to assist consumers throughout the store. However, there are some questions that come to mind and are hopefully being addressed by the Inventors at Walmart:
- How will the system recognize that a cart is actually abandoned and not one that is sitting still for a lengthy period of time because the consumer is either in the restroom, waiting online at customer service, taking their time reading labels, or simply talking on the phone? We know that these different scenarios can often lead to a cart being left unattended for a period of time.
- Will carts being used by employees have the functionality of being “disengaged” from the system? When an employee is stocking the shelves in the pharmacy area, for example, and has a lot of small boxes to break down, if they go on break before they have completed the task, the cart will go unmoved for a period of time. Will the system see it as abandoned or unused and try to return it to the dock?
- What will happen if a cart is abandoned but there are items left within the cart? Will the system somehow recognize there are items in the cart and therefore not forcibly try to push the cart into the corral other carts potentially damaging merchandise within it?
How Will Technology Impact Jobs
One of the things that seems to be a huge question on the mind’s of many is how will these types of technological advances impact jobs. Many people automatically, and incorrectly, assume is that Technological advances will have a negative impact on jobs across the world. In fact, Digital Trends mentioned in their article that Walmart is cutting 7,000 jobs due to Automation. And in another article on their website, they also report that Robots are expected to replace some 5 Million Jobs by 2020. However, that is a gross oversimplification of how technology is impacting jobs. Yes, robotics and technology such as Self Driving Shopping Cars may have a negative impact on a few low paying jobs such as those who retrieve carts at Walmart. But what is not being reported enough, are the tens of thousands of jobs being created during the invention, implementation and maintenance stages of such technology.
Earlier this year, Fortune Magazine posted an article titled 25 Million New Jobs Coming to America, Thanks to Technology. The article explains that technology has 3 major impacts on jobs; 1. Technology has lead to many more companies, including old line manufacturers, to now offer services that support those new technologies as they become available in the mainstream; 2. Technology such as driverless cars and wearable devices continue to lead to a larger need for new networks of people to handle the sensor data from these devices’ 3. There has been a surge in data analytics due to the “rapid development and deployment of software and applications.”
So back to our Driverless Carts, even if every Walmart in America has 10 jobs dedicated to the retrieval of carts who could potentially loose their jobs because of technology such as Self-Driving Shopping Carts, there are so many other, higher paying jobs that are being created in order to develop and manufacture such technology, not to mention those who are employed to install, maintain, repair and improve such technologies. So while political leaders should look for solutions to help dislocated workers adapt to a higher tech economy, focusing on the loss of a few jobs misses the bigger picture.