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Amazon's autonomous vehicles bet could make deliveries even cheaper

In this illustration, a cardboard Amazon delivery box is fashioned into the shape of a car.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Amazon has been pouring money into autonomous vehicle technology, a strategy that could squeeze its retail competitors by allowing it to control the entire shopping process from click-to-buy to delivery.

What's new: The online retail giant was fairly quiet about its AV ambitions until now. But with a rapid-fire series of investments, Amazon is declaring its intention to automate shipping and logistics every step of the way — from its warehouses to highways to your doorstep.

The big picture: Shoppers have become accustomed to almost free, lightning fast delivery. Without a driver, AVs would be able to deliver goods even cheaper and faster, KPMG researchers say, increasing pressure on brick-and-mortar retailers and triggering even more online shopping.

  • McKinsey predicts autonomous deliveries will slash retailers’ shipping costs by 40%.

Context: Several big-name retailers are already experimenting with driverless delivery.

  • Kroger is partnering with the newly flush Nuro to deliver groceries with robot vehicles in Arizona.
  • Walmart has enlisted Waymo, Google's self-driving car unit, to bring shoppers to its stores in autonomous minivans, though it isn't delivering goods in AVs.
"The economics of pulling the driver out of the vehicle to get the last mile or the last 50 feet is astonishing. That's why everybody is investing in AV technology."
— Gary Silberg, automotive sector leader, KPMG

Yes, but: Amazon is bigger and stronger. Its Prime membership business, worth an estimated $100 billion per Morgan Stanley, has already overwhelmed the competition with its speedier and cheaper delivery.

  • Last holiday season, the company kicked off a race to the bottom on shipping prices by offering free delivery for weeks.
  • Amazon already has thousands of trucks, a handful of airplanes and even some drones that it uses to deliver packages.
  • Amazon faces the same challenges as others — AV technology is new and widespread deployment is not a given. But adding its own fleet of autonomous trucks could drive its prices down even further and thwart rivals' attempts to leverage AV tech through Waymo, Aurora or others.

Details: Amazon formed a small team to investigate driverless technology several years ago and partnered with Toyota in early 2018 to explore AV deliveries. It has also been spotted using self-driving trucks to haul cargo in Arizona. But in recent weeks, they've doubled down...

  • In January, Amazon introduced Scout, a cooler-sized, electric robot for last-mile deliveries.
  • Earlier this month, it joined a $530 million investment round in AV startup Aurora Innovation, led by an all-star team of engineers from Google, Tesla and Uber.
  • A week later, it led a $700 million investment in Rivian, whose modular electric chassis can be adapted for virtually any type of vehicle.
  • With Aurora's self-driving system and Rivian's flexible "skateboard," Amazon could potentially fashion different sized AVs for any purpose.

The bottom line: Amazon has a history of expanding into areas within its own value chain wherever it can be successful, notes Roy Bahat of Bloomberg Beta. “Automated vehicle technology is now mature enough that it's within the striking distance of Amazon's long arm.”

Go deeper: The next five years of Amazon