November 18, 2017


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In the future, there may no longer be a need to tip the pizza-delivery guy.

Of course, you may have to work out how to tip an autonomous car: Ford and Domino’s Pizza are working together to develop self-driving vehicles that handle autonomous deliveries. The two companies will conduct tests of the vehicles over the next several weeks in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Randomly selected customers will have the chance to receive their orders from a specially outfitted Ford Fusion hybrid autonomous research vehicle.

Customers can track the delivery status thanks to the cars’ GPS. And when the vehicle arrives, they’ll receive a text with a unique code that unlocks a specially designed heated compartment—similar to that fitted to Domino’s DXP vehicles—so they can go to the car and retrieve their pizzas.

While the novelty of an autonomous vehicle arriving in their driveway may spark curiosity among customers, the research is more about studying the ease with which they use the delivery system rather than their interest in the technical underpinnings of the vehicle itself. For Ford, these sorts of deliveries could someday become a linchpin in business plans involving autonomous vehicles. For Domino’s the project helps answer questions about how cranky their customers might be when they need to receive their pizzas in the driveway rather than by simply opening their door.

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Ford-Dominos-3

“We’re interested to learn what people think about this type of delivery,” said Russell Weiner, president of Domino’s USA. “The majority of our questions are about the last 50 feet of the delivery experience. We need to make sure the interface is clear and simple. We need to understand if a customer’s experience is different if the car is parked in the driveway versus next to the curb.”

This isn’t the first time Domino’s has pondered such questions. In 2016, the company showcased a fleet of four-wheeled robots—officially, Domino’s Robotic Units—that kept pizzas piping hot while rolling up a customer’s driveway. While the company didn’t mention the DRU in conjunction with its Ford collaboration, it’s easy to see how a larger vehicle could deploy smaller robots to cover those final 50 feet in the future.

Those final 50 feet could be a monumental hurdle. For all the chatter about autonomous vehicles replacing humans who drive trucks or delivery vehicles for a living, there’s still the matter of getting a package from the road and into the hands of paying customers. Solving that challenge could have big implications for companies like Amazon, FedEx, and UPS, which undoubtedly will be curious about any insights the Ford and Domino’s experiment yields.

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Ford-Dominos-4

If the handoff with a customer is one challenge, so is figuring out what to do with an idled vehicle while the delivery is made. Speaking at a Ford event in San Francisco earlier this month, Kevin Vasconi, Domino’s Pizza chief information officer and executive vice president, who oversees delivery operations, said that aspect of delivery will grow more complicated with autonomous operations, especially in urban environments.

“I probably have drivers in my system today that will double park, but an autonomous vehicle will not double park,” he said. “I don’t know a single city planner thinking about autonomous delivery zones. We’re going to need to talk about curbside management. It’s going to get harder, and we need partnerships between manufacturers and cities.”

In Ann Arbor, Domino’s and Ford may have found an ideal proving ground. In addition to being the home of both Domino’s headquarters and thousands of hungry college students at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor is home to the Mcity autonomous test track, where Ford has extensively tested its autonomous Fusions.

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Ford-Dominos-2

For now, those Fusions still will have a Ford safety engineer behind the wheel, and they’ll also be staffed with researchers to collect information that will help shape how the companies firm up their business cases for autonomy in the years ahead. The research comes as Ford closes in on its goal of deploying Level 4 autonomous vehicles—those with systems that can handle all operations in specific areas—by 2021.

Sherif Marakby, Ford’s vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification, hinted at those plans in a blog post last week, noting that the company is exploring ways to carry both passengers and goods. “Ride sharing and hailing is on the rise, and shopping at malls is giving way to buying online, which is increasing package-delivery services,” he wrote. “Therefore, we’re building a business to capitalize on both of these trends.”


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