Walmart's self-driving shopping cart magic

Envision opening the Walmart app and summoning a cart to wherever you're standing and having it drive right to you.

walmartlabs sunnyvale lobby

A wall decoration from WalmartLabs' Sunnyvale, California, eCommerce office.

Credit: Walmart

Despite various short-lived efforts over the years, most retail shopping carts are impressively low-tech. And they almost always have a wheel out of alignment (or are those just the ones I always seem to get?). But a new patent issued to Walmart paints a futuristic vision, with carts driving themselves from the parking lot right to the customer who called for it.

Even if Walmart actually chooses to manufacturer and deploy such carts — many patents never get productized — it will be a baby step toward making carts truly useful in retail. Carts could house navigational systems that could literally steer you toward the exact items on your list. For that matter, they could take "accidental" detours by high-margin items and offer you a coupon — as long as you're right there.

For the moment, though, let's look at what Walmart's new patent envisions. For starters, it addresses one of the more time-consuming and least profitable — not to mention least popular among employees — tasks at many retailers: Someone has to go fetch the carts and corral the unwieldy units into a cart collection area. And sometimes this happens during rather unpleasant weather.

This means that shoppers can leave their carts anywhere they want in the parking lot and the cart will drive itself to a collection area. And when needed, drive itself back into the store and to the specific aisle where it's been summoned.

This little change can allow employees to be focused on more profitable customer-service tasks. And it will also neaten up the parking lot. The patent speaks of messy stores and parking lots where "shopping carts are left abandoned, aisles become messy, inventory is not displayed in the proper locations or is not even placed on the sales floor, shelf prices may not be properly set, and theft is hard to discourage."

Not quite clear on how an automated shopping cart fixes products being misplaced or improper shelf prices, but such is life.

The magic is performed, according to the patent, via "a plurality of sensors, a plurality of motorized transport units, and a control circuit. 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 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 based at least on a location information of the user interface device, select a motorized transport unit to transport the available shopping container, and provide instructions to the motorized transport unit to bring the available shopping container to the customer."

How exactly does the cart locate the shopper? The patent offers a few possible avenues including LEDs "that are mounted in the ceiling at known positions throughout the space and that each encode data in the emitted light that identifies the source of the light and thus the location of the light." The patent specifies one company offering such capabilities. "Generally, such lighting systems are known and commercially available, e.g., the ByteLight system from ByteLight of Boston, Mass. In embodiments using a ByteLight system, a typical display screen of the typical smart phone device can be used as a light sensor or light receiver to receive and process data encoded into the light from the ByteLight light sources."

The patent also considered low-energy radio beacons, typically using Bluetooth and audio beacons.

The idea of intelligent automated shopping carts is hardly new. Four years ago, Microsoft was involved in a trial with Whole Foods about a cart that would also push marketing messages. That trial, however, suffered from some technical issues. Microsoft put out a field of infrared dots with a laser and mapped distortions to navigate the carts. But above a certain light level, the dots got washed out and couldn't be seen. This happened when the carts were near windows or skylights.

There are also issues of the cost of keeping the carts powered and connected to the network.

Still, Walmart's effort could be the beginning of some intriguing research. Now if it could only fix that bum wheel.

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