Domino’s, Ford start self-driving delivery tests

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Domino’s Pizza wants to know how customers would react to having their pizzas delivered by a self-driving car. It will begin an experiment with Ford Motor Co. on Tuesday to test that idea.

The automaker is supplying a self-driving Ford Fusion Hybrid equipped with Ford’s full suite of cameras, sensors, radar and lidar (light detection and ranging) for testing in Ann Arbor for about a month and a half. Although the car is labeled as a “self-driving delivery vehicle,” it won’t actually be operating in autonomous mode. Instead, one Ford engineer hidden behind tinted windows will drive the car. Another will monitor input from the car’s hardware.

Here’s what selected customers of Domino’s Plymouth Road location will experience:

When the delivery car pulls to the curb, customers will get a text message that their pizza has arrived. When they approach the car they’ll find a touchscreen at the rear passenger-side window of the vehicle. After typing the last four digits of the phone number from which they placed the order, the window rolls down and the customer grabs their order from a warming oven just inside the window. Then the window rolls up, the car thanks the customer and it drives away.

Ford will use the tests as research for autonomous delivery vehicles it plans to sell within the next five years. Domino’s will get to see if customers actually want or like automated deliveries.

The partnership is a step for Ford in the direction that new CEO Jim Hackett has been pushing the company since his time as the head of Ford Smart Mobility.

Hackett wants his people to bring a fully driverless vehicle without a steering wheel, a brake pedal or an accelerator to market by 2021, and he wants the vehicle to have more than one use. The first street-legal, fully autonomous vehicles seen from Ford won’t be used solely in ride-sharing fleets in defined geographic areas, he has said.

“It’s not just ride-sharing and ride-moving or people moving, but it’s also moving the goods,” said Sherif Marakby, Ford vice president of autonomous and electric vehicles. “We develop the plan to go to market as we develop the tech. We work with partners (and) this is one example. There will be more in the future.”

Tuesday’s move could be prudent for Ford, given an increasing number of studies saying a majority of consumers polled would not consider riding in an autonomous vehicle.

The delivery research is as much a chance for both Ford and Domino’s to get a head start on competitors is it is a way to get what looks like a self-driving vehicle on the road to gauge reactions. Company officials say it’s the first open collaboration between a restaurant chain and an automotive company in the autonomous technology sphere.

According to Ford, the market for delivery services will grow from a $13 billion industry to $31 billion industry by 2021, right when Ford plans to have its self-driving vehicle ready to launch.

Kevin Vasconi, Domino’s chief information officer and executive vice president, said he knows there will be a market for autonomous delivery vehicles. A number of retailers are experimenting with drone deliveries, and many automakers are pushing for self-driving vehicles.

The experiments starting Tuesday generate some buzz for Domino’s, and positions the company to have something ready to launch when fully autonomous vehicles are ready to roll.

“We are delivery experts,” Vasconi said. “This technology is going to be here before probably any of us think it will, and we have an opportunity working with people like Ford to set the direction. We’re in a highly competitive industry, and if we don’t keep moving forward our competition are going to close in on us.”

Vasconi and other Domino’s leadership downplayed the chance of these vehicles putting delivery drivers out of work. They say the autonomous vehicles would generate business and more delivery orders for the company.

The pizza delivery vehicle is an early prototype. There’s only one. Domino’s and Roush Enterprises outfitted it with a custom Domino’s Heatwave Compartment, which is modeled after the oven on the back of the Domino’s DXP delivery vehicle rolled out in 2015. That can hold up to four pizzas and five side dishes at one time.

The new test vehicle is painted to look like a test vehicle, with notices saying as much printed on the doors and hood of the car. Those who agree to allow Domino’s to use the test vehicle will not be told anyone is inside.

Both companies want to simulate an autonomous delivery to get true reactions from customers.

The new test vehicle is painted to look like a test vehicle, with notices saying as much printed on the doors and hood of the car.

Domino’s will monitor everything from delivery times and customer satisfaction, to where customers touch the vehicle, how easy it is for them to remove the pizzas from the insulated compartment, how quickly they’re able to punch in the code, and if they’re able to keep their hands off the car’s valuable lidar systems spinning atop the vehicle.

That last part is important, Vasconi said, because if Domino’s brings an autonomous delivery car to market, there won’t be anyone inside to make sure customers don’t damage the pricey equipment.

Meanwhile, Ford will also monitor how customers approach and interact with the vehicles, and places to potentially make the human interaction with the vehicle easier, safer or better.

The vehicle will be tweaked by both Ford and Domino’s based on the feedback.

“We are learning so that we can feed the development,” Marakby said. “We want to make sure we learn as much as possible, and simulate that with quick prototypes. I feel that the consumer is looking for (autonomous vehicles), the businesses are looking for them — and probably most importantly, society is ready for them.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau