This mobile grocery store has no staff and may one day drive itself to you

Screengrab of a Wheelys Moby Mart video advertisement.
PHOTO: Youtube

We've heard of groceries being delivered right to our doors, and drones dropping packages from the sky, but have you ever seen an entire grocery store on wheels travelling to meet its customers?

That's exactly what the Wheelys 247 Moby Mart is, and more. 

It's a grocery-shopping experience with no lines, no check-out, and no driving to far places.

What's more, the self-driving supermarket, open 24/7, is completely unmanned because its only staff member isn't human- the entire operation is run by AI.

Created by Swedish startup Wheelys, and in co-operation with Hefei University and retail company Himalafy, the Moby Mart just opened as a test store in Shanghai, China.

All you have to do to use the store is download an app. The app lets you locate and call a nearby Moby to your area and also doubles as a key to open the store's doors.

Customers are greeted by a hologram-like AI, to whom they can direct any questions they may have about how to use the store.

To buy products, customers simply scan what they want with their phones or place items in a "smart basket" that automatically tracks their purchases.

Customers can scan products to purchase them using the app.Photo: Wheelys

Then, they just walk out the door when finished with shopping. The store will charge customers' pre-registered card and send them a receipt shortly after exiting. 

To discourage theft, the store is equipped with video cameras to watch patrons inside, according to a report by TechCrunch.

The Moby Mart may be small, but people can shop at the mobile store 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.Photo: Wheelys

The Moby Mart is small, fitting only a maximum of four people at once, but is designed to be environmentally-friendly, easy to access, and cheaper to operate than a regular grocery store.

Moby is solar-powered, and automatically drives itself to a warehouse when it's time to restock. Meanwhile, another identical unit takes its place.

While Wheelys looks toward the future, it also has humble beginnings.

Tomas Mazetti, one of the founders of the startup, shared with Fast Company that part of the motivation to set up Moby Mart was to alleviate some of the barriers to food access, especially in small rural towns or urban food deserts.

Wheelys hopes to be able to produce and sell the stores by 2018, to communities rather than corporations.

"I want these to be bought by families or groups of people, so that it's not one person that owns every store in the world," said Mazetti. "Instead of working at a warehouse for Amazon, you can own your own little store."

Wheelys estimates that a community could purchase a Moby store for around $30,000 (S$41,500), with an additional fee for logistical support.

However, while the goal is for the Moby Mart to be fully automated, autonomous vehicles are not yet allowed on the road in China. They currently must be either driven or remotely controlled.

The hope is that one day, instead of people making a visit to the store, the store itself will arrive in front of their homes.

Meanwhile, also in China, a man demonstrates what it really means to visit a drive-in store by driving his car physically into a convenience store in Jiangsu province.

While not a tech start-up bringing food to people, the man evidently found a way to bring himself straight to the food. Looks like he's pretty forward-thinking as well!

thanhb@sph.com.sg

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