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Ford's self-driving vehicles deliver food, school supplies to families in need

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

As Ford Motor Co. prepares to launch a commercial fleet of self-driving vehicles, it's learning from recent experiences using autonomous vehicles to deliver food and school supplies to families in need amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The deliveries, via a partnership with the nonprofit Education Fund in Florida's Miami-Dade County, mark the first time the Dearborn automaker's autonomous-vehicle division and technology partner Argo AI have deployed fully self-driving vehicles for deliveries to customers — a milestone in the quest to build out a goods delivery business powered by autonomous vehicles.

The eight-week pilot program brings together the Education Fund, Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC (a subsidiary of Ford), Argo AI, and the automaker's philanthropic arm, the Ford Motor Co. Fund. Ford's Fusion Hybrid self-driving test vehicles — manned by two test specialists, but driven without human engagement — have been conducting contactless drop-offs of fresh produce and supplies such as notebooks and pens to the families of 50 students who attend Feinberg Fisher K-8 in Miami Beach and Riverside Elementary School in Little Havana.

Ford Motor Co. and self-driving technology partner Argo AI, in partnership with the nonprofit Education Fund and the Ford Motor Co. Fund, have making been weekly food and school supply deliveries to families in need in Miami-Dade County. It's the first time Ford's self-driving vehicles have made customer deliveries in "autonomous mode."

The program aims to fill in some of the gaps created by remote learning during the pandemic. The Education Fund previously distributed fresh produce from its Food Forest program at 26 schools in Miami-Dade County and gave out free classroom materials on a weekly basis. 

"Ford saw an opportunity to broaden a critical supply pipeline to students," Linda Lecht, president of the Education Fund, said in a statement. "The deliveries ensure low-income students have nutritious food and the learning materials they need even at home."

Here's how it works: The Education Fund packs up bags of organic greens and school supplies. Then, the Ford/Argo team picks the packages up from the schools. The self-driving vehicles, using software that tells them the optimal delivery routes, make the deliveries each week.

Test specialists load the packages into the cars and conduct contactless deliveries for the families of about 50 students in two communities in the county.

As helpful as the program is for the community, it's also beneficial for Ford and Argo as the partners work to refine their self-driving technologies and prepare to launch self-driving commercial services in three cities — including Miami — in 2022.

The program is one of numerous autonomous-driving pilots Ford has conducted, but it's the first where deliveries to customers have been made without humans operating the vehicles. The two people that participate in each delivery are there simply to ensure safety; the vehicles operate on their own.

"For us, that's really material because we're doing this for a partner. We're making deliveries to families. We have to meet delivery-time windows. We're setting up multi-stop routes," Navin Kumar, director of Ford's AV business, told The Detroit News. "So a lot of what we've put in place with this activity with the Education Fund represents material aspects of what we would have in a commercial operation, and builds on the progress we've had in market with our operations over the last one to two years."

Like other automakers, Ford is investing heavily in electric and self-driving vehicles, which are widely seen as the future of the automotive industry. The Blue Oval has committed to investing more than $4 billion in AV development by 2023.

Cruise LLC, a majority-owned subsidiary of General Motors Co., started a similar program earlier this year to use its all-electric self-driving fleet to deliver meals to people in need in San Francisco. As of July, the self-driving vehicle company totaled more than 50,000 contactless deliveries of groceries and meals.

The program is one of several Ford and Argo have conducted in Miami and other cities across the country as the automaker prepares to launch a self-driving commercial service in 2022.

Right now, Ford and Argo are conducting test drives in Detroit, Palo Alto, Pittsburgh, Austin, Miami and Washington, D.C. The latter three cities are slated to be included in the launch of Ford's self-driving commercial services.

Those test drives, as well as programs such as this one in Miami, allow the self-driving vehicles to learn at a hyper-local level the different driving environments in each community where they operate. In Miami Beach and Little Havana for example, the vehicles have stopped at 90 different locations, allowing them to glean knowledge about parking, wait times and specific street conditions.

"We're getting a lot of inputs and data points that are important for refining the system for location- and regional-specific factors," said Kumar. "Those are very important inputs that feed into our system and how we engineer the system, and it's really key for providing an optimal service."

It also helps Ford from a business perspective, allowing the company to gather feedback and lessons, for example, about what goes into coordinating a delivery fleet. How long does it take to load the vehicle? Who benefits from this type of service? The answers to these types of questions can help the automaker prepare for a full-fledged delivery business, which it envisions rolling out with partners in retail and e-commerce.

Ford and Argo plan to expand their pilot programs next year.

"We plan to have much more activity in 2021 in all the cities we operate in," said Kumar.

Twitter: @JGrzelewski