Ford announced on Tuesday that it is partnering with Domino’s Pizza to better understand how customers respond to food deliveries using self-driving vehicles.

The multi-week test will begin this week in Ann Arbor, MI, as Ford and Domino’s examine what customers do when they receive food from a self-driving car. Randomly-selected Domino’s customers will be able to opt in to have food delivered from a Ford Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research Vehicle. The car will not be self-driven at this point; it will be manually driven by a Ford engineer and staffed with researchers.

How Ford sees the future of deliveries

The research will help Ford better develop the software that will be used in self-driving delivery cars that are expected to launch in 2021, said Sherif Marakby, Ford vice president of autonomous and electric vehicles.

“This is ethnographic research to understand the willingness of the consumer to go out and pick up their stuff,” Marakby said. “Also, when they get close to the car, we want to see if the things we thought they would do, will be what they actually do. How will they authenticate themselves to get their stuff? Will they leave stuff in the bin? How will we react to that? How will they walk up to the car? Do they leave anything on top of the car?”

SEE: Our autonomous future: How driverless cars will be the first robots we learn to trust (TechRepublic free download)

Ford’s engineers want to make sure they understand the reaction that people have to self-driving delivery cars before self-driving delivery vehicles launch in 2021.

“We are hoping that this test shows us things we’ve missed and that we can incorporate into the development,” Marakby said, adding that this is an atypical way for an auto manufacturer to develop a product.

“This is untraditional for an auto company because what we have [done] is continued to develop this technology as we learn the consumer and the business at the same time. It’s really important to us that we develop the tech and in parallel we understand the consumer and make changes. That’s not a normal way of operation in an auto company. We’re very excited about the learning, and we’re opened-minded,” Marakby said.

Roush Enterprises fabricated the prototype vehicle’s pizza container, from which customers will retrieve their own food delivery after verifying their identity to the car. There was preliminary testing done on the delivery process using the vehicle in self-driving mode at Mcity, the simulated urban environment on the University of Michigan’s campus.

Self-driving delivery vehicles will benefit businesses, particularly small businesses, because the vehicles can be used for multiple deliveries from a range of companies. Businesses that don’t provide delivery service might consider adding it on, and increasing sales, if they can use a self-driving delivery vehicle service, Marakby said.

“For a city and for businesses, this could be an advantage in terms of providing more access and delivery capacity than they have today. In terms of having vehicles that can move people or goods across different businesses, I would view that as potentially fewer vehicles on the road. You have one vehicle on the road doing more things,” he said.

Domino’s take on the future of deliveries

Kevin Vasconi, executive vice president and CIO at Domino’s Pizza, spoke at Ford’s City of Tomorrow Symposium in San Francisco earlier this month. Vasconi said that Domino’s has 14,000 stores in 70 countries, and they deliver about 3 million orders per week out of 5,500 stores. Domino’s uses bikes, e-bikes, scooters, e-scooters, and cars for deliveries to deliver its perishable product in the fastest method possible.

Vasconi said the last 100 feet is particularly important to Domino’s. “In getting the product out of the vehicle and to the consumer in an urban environment is extremely challenging. It needs a lot of technology to do that, and we use a lot of extra labor to do that, so it’s not the most efficient process.”

He pointed out that as the world becomes more autonomous, it will get harder, not easier, to make deliveries, because right now some delivery drivers will double-park, but an autonomous vehicle will not. “We really do need a partnership between vehicle manufacturers, between the city, and between technologies to kind of try to deal with what’s happening.”

Right now, most Domino’s Pizza deliveries are one delivery per trip per driver, which is highly inefficient, Vasconi said. And having an autonomous vehicle doing multiple deliveries means that they have to figure out how to ensure that a customer only takes their own order, and doesn’t get the wrong delivery items out of the food container installed in the vehicle, he said.

“The future will have very, very high utilization of whatever that delivery vehicle is, whether it’s a bicycle or an autonomous vehicle,” Vasconi said. Safety is also crucial, not just for the people making the delivery, but also for the consumer picking up the products.

“I think for us, the future is a world where we have very, very high utilization with designated drop-off places with a trained consumer that’s very, very comfortable interacting with either the driver, or some level of autonomy,” he said.

Vasconi said, “As a company that’s absolutely obsessed with the consumer, we’ve got to think about how they want to interact with delivery in the future, right? I’m not always going to be able to pull up in their driveway, walking up to their house, and hand it to them. Especially in an urban environment, that’s going to be non-existent. I really feel that we’ve got to understand how consumers want delivery, and then we’ve got to figure out how to deliver that delivery to them. The companies that do that well are the companies that are going to succeed.”

The top 3 takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Ford has partnered with Domino’s Pizza to do research on how customers respond to food delivery from an autonomous vehicle.
  2. The Ford and Domino’s test of self-driving cars will begin this week and last for a few weeks, as data is gathered.
  3. The research will be used to develop software for Ford’s self-driving delivery vehicles, which will launch in 2021.

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