Here's what Domino's and Ford learned from their self-driving pizza delivery cars

This feature is courtesy of Driven, the story of how the Detroit region is leading the world in next-generation mobility.
There are a lot of plans on whiteboards detailing how the new world of autonomous vehicles will interact with humans. But while vehicles can be programmed to act in a predictable manner, human behavior is a bit more tricky. Humans can be emotional, reluctant to change, or simply prefer to deal with people rather than machines. So, we embraced ATMs and self-checkout.

Robocalls from politicians? Not so much.

Now, what about pizza delivery? Sure, an autonomous vehicle can get the pizza to the house, but what about that last 50 feet from car to customer? Sherif Marakby, vice president of Autonomous Vehicles and Electrification at Ford Motor Co., was wondering the same thing.

So Ford struck a deal with Domino's earlier this year and, in tests of self-driving pizza-delivery cars in Florida and Michigan, began taking notes on how customer and car interact in the all-American act of delivering a pizza.

We were curious, too, so we asked Marakby about what Ford is hoping to achieve through its pizza trial run.

Can you give us an update on the Domino's delivery experiment?

In February 2018, we announced Ford was setting up its first self-driving business in Florida’s Miami-Dade County to prove out our self-driving business model. As part of this, we announced we were conducting research in Miami with our partner’s Domino’s and Postmates, to better understand the customer experience of food and parcel delivery.

Over the past few months we have been conducting research with Domino’s on the streets of Miami and Miami Beach to understand how customers interact with self-driving vehicles in an urban environment. This includes learning about the different parking challenges, identification and notification of customer pickup areas, as well as different customer behaviors.

Both the research with Domino’s in Miami this year and in Ann Arbor last fall is helping us design our purpose-built self-driving vehicle planned for 2021 so it is easy for customers to interact with and use.

What you called "the last 50 feet of the delivery experience" is a big 50 feet. When the pizza delivery person arrives at my home in a snowstorm, I don't want to go outside. I expect delivery to my doorstep. Is this going to be a big barrier?

This is exactly the kind of customer insights we are hoping to gain from our research with Domino’s and make adjustments for the next phase of research. We want to understand how customers interact with a self-driving vehicle from the delivery standpoint. For example, the customer’s willingness to walk outside and get their pizza from a car, especially during a snowstorm, or if they will check their order before the car departs. Also, we are testing the delivery interface to make sure it is clear and simple to use.

People have grown accustomed to getting their money from an ATM, but there's something about the human interaction of a pizza delivery person that's still appealing. Is there going to have to be a cultural shift before this kind of service is accepted?

That is a great question and with any new thing there comes transitions. The whole goal of our self-driving business is to create an experience that customers will love and that is something that we will continue to research and observe in our pilot program with Domino’s.

You've written that food delivery revenue is expected to grow from $13 billion to $39 billion in the next five years?. How much of that will be served by self-driving technology? Are there any particular niches that make most sense?

Right now we are focused on testing out our business model to help us design a purpose-built self-driving vehicle planned for 2021 to create the best customer experience. We know that this will include both the movement of people and goods, which includes food.

Ford Motor Co. and Domino's are testing customer acceptance to pizza delivery by autonomous car.
What kinds of safeguards need to be installed to make sure no harm will come to car and customer? In general, is this all done with existing technology, or is there going to have to be more innovation at the point of contact with the customer?

Safety is our priority with all vehicle tests whether on test tracks or public roads. It is important to clarify that for this testing with Domino’s, our vehicles are not driven in autonomous mode and the safety driver and researcher in the vehicle are trained and experienced. We have taken all precautions, including informing city officials and the police departments, as well as applying graphics on the vehicle to clearly indicate it is a test vehicle.

Looking ahead to the future, we do not have specific plans for conducting customer deliveries in autonomous mode, but hope to reach that point in the future and there will of course be extensive safeguards in place if this happens.

This brings up an important jobs issue, of course. What will happen to current delivery drivers?

Yes, and we understand and respect the concerns of self-driving vehicles challenging jobs. However, we believe that the services enabled by self-driving technology will still require the human touch to get the customer experience right. That is why we are focused on positioning self-driving vehicles to complement and expand on the jobs that people currently hold. Our business model testing will also help us better understand the impact and opportunities ahead.

Are there any other food delivery chains you're in discussion with?

In addition to Domino’s, we have also announced a partnership with Postmates, an on-demand local delivery company that operates in 250 cities.With Postmates we will test the delivery experience of both food from restaurants and goods from various retailers that Postmates serves. We will have more details to share on this pilot program happening in Miami soon.

Will we still need to tip the driver?

Customers don’t have to tip a self-driving vehicle. Through our research with Domino’s we examine behavioral norms around pizza delivery and what customers like and don’t like. In fact, from our Ann Arbor test, one of the facets that customers reported they liked was the fact they didn’t have to tip!

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