Imagine this: cinematic, ambient music plays as you fly over the fluorescent skyline of Shanghai. Suddenly, you’re dancing in a dimly lit club; so cool it’s intimidating. You’re exhausted from being so hip, so you decide to leave to pick up some snacks.
You get out your phone, open an app, select ‘order store’.
Within minutes, from around a corner arrives a futuristic glass temple of consumerism. your very own self-driving, interactive convenience store looking like something straight out of Blade Runner. The doors open and you are greeted by a friendly AI hologram, Hol. In front of you waits a range of consumer goods – chocolate, magazines, milk, shoes, nail clippers...
Once you’re finished you leave the pod. The doors close and the mystery machine is on its way, summoned by the next 21st century customer.
This may sound like the future but the creators of Moby Mart proclaim this is ‘not science-fiction’ as the autonomous, on-demand retail vehicle is currently being beta tested on the streets of Shanghai.
The aim for Moby Mart is to make shopping an even simpler prospect than it already is in today’s hyper-connected world, by bringing the shop to you on a 24/7 basis. The autonomous outlet is a logical next step in the chain of self-driving vehicles, and follows a long list of new on-demand services such as Deliveroo, Uber and Post-Mates. However, Per Cromwell, CTO of Moby Mart and co-founder of Wheeley’s, a wildly successful chain of organic bicycle cafes, is not worried by such competition. ‘We are in a better position to deliver products since we are usually closer to the end customer than a warehouse outside the city center,’ he says. ‘Staffless, mobile and agile is a good position to be in to meet the future.’
Cromwell’s dream is of an ‘entire fleet of self-driving staffless stores, killing the malls, and reviving the countryside and inner cities.’ He hopes to revolutionise retail in the same way Uber has forever changed the taxi industry or Airbnb has the hotel business. What separates Moby Mart from the rest is its use of ‘AI, patented inventions and the cloud.’ The solar-powered, self-driving machine comes equipped with an AI-programmed hologram assistant, optional drone deliveries and the ability to automatically refill its shelves with everything from milk and bread to defibrillators and first aid kits.
For Cromwell, the heart of Moby Mart is that it is a community endeavour. When Wheely’s acquired the unmanned Swedish 24-hour shop, Naraffar, the idea for Moby Mart was born. Cromwell worked in cooperation with China’s Hefei University of Technology to create, develop and engineer the project.
Naraffar was founded by Swedish IT expert Robert Ilijason’s following his frustration at having to drive over 12 miles to get to his nearest late-night convenience store. The store uses an app that people use to scan and pay for their food, skirting the cost of paying employees. Now Ilijason’s village has the convenience of having a store open for 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. Cromwell hopes that Moby Mart will have the same influence and effect in rejuvenating suburban towns and rural villages around the world by providing on-demand stores that cater to specific consumer demands.
Is it all too good to be true?
At an estimated cost of $100,000 per vehicle, Moby Mart is a pricy investment. The company website claims that the ‘offering is identical in Iguigig, Alaska and downtown Manhattan’. However, the practicalities of having an AI-run, drone-powered supermarket in Iguigig doesn’t seem overly plausible. The 2010 census for the region reported a population of just 50, making the Moby Mart run to $2,000 per person, a lot considering that that the median income per household is $21,750pa (to compare Manhattan has a median income of $66,739). Further, 6.9 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, all of whom are over 65.
Cromwell understands this. ‘You will always earn less in Iquigig than in downtown New York,’ he admits, ‘but we hope to make it easier for the rural areas to have access to stores.’ He goes on to explain that ‘we also sell systems that can convert a regular store into a one. Salaries are a big cost for small stores (often operated by the owner themselves). If they can install a staffless system which is more affordable than a Moby Mart, then more effort can go into marketing, business development, or other ways of increasing the income for the store.’
Ultimately, Cromwell sees Moby Mart as a platform, one offering different variations to fit different aesthetics and needs. The promotional videos depict the company as being almost eerily cool – the Moby Mart arrives for a young, hipster woman straight from a long night of clubbing and gives her the opportunity to buy clothes from Vans or Acne. Cromwell believes that its sci-fi image is an advantage, explaining that it adds value to traditional areas: ‘Rather than trying to blend in (which almost always fails) we work with contrasts,’ he suggests. Nonetheless, it still feels like it will be stretch to make it relatable to your stereotypical technophobic grandparent.
Cromwell is positive though, and has no doubt that ‘in a few years time, fully autonomous vehicles will be an off-the-shelf product. In the meantime we’re using remote controlled tech and the autonomous systems that are currently available.’ Currently, it’s being tested in ‘very controlled and easy environments’ and the focus is centred more on the retail systems than on developing the vehicles. Cromwell clarifies, ‘Together with the Hefei University we are developing our own tech in this field, but we are not setting out to solve all the implications of deploying Mobys in, for instance, San Francisco where the terrain is tough, and traffic is dense.’ This highlights some of the current design problems that need to be overcome. The Moby isn’t being tested on hills steeper than a few degrees due to the prospect of products shifting and the way it’ll affect the interior of the bus.
Nonetheless, Cromwell has an infectious optimism for the product, ‘It will take time before Shanghai or New Delhi are filled with just autonomous vehicles, but this day will come,’ he says. For the moment, the hope is to be able to deploy four or five more stores in Asia during 2017, while in 2018, Europe and the US should be getting their own taste of the Moby Mart.