Autonomous vehicles to deliver safety, comfort and… Pizza?

Consumers have been slow to warm up to the idea of autonomous mobility, and for some OEMs, autonomous pizza delivery appears to be a more palatable use case for the technology. By Megan Lampinen

Autonomous vehicles are going to remove the element of human error, which lies behind about 95% of all crashes. That promise, which brings with it a vision of safe and smoothly flowing traffic along the roadways, has prompted OEMs and suppliers to invest billions of dollars and countless development hours into the technology.

There are plenty of welcome side-effects to autonomy, such as more free time, which can be spent working or sleeping while the car drives itself, but it is the safety aspects that have been the driving force. And yet, some of the earliest test cases have centred on pizza delivery. On the surface it may not appear the most lucrative business model for this expensive technology, but it does point to the early potential for goods movement in the application of autonomous technology.

Domino’s and Ford

Domino’s Pizza, for example, envisions a future in which fleets of autonomous vehicles shuttle hot pizza to homes across the US. To realise that, it’s working with Ford on a test pilot in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ford is providing the car, a special Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research Vehicle, to deliver pizza orders to select customers. An updated version of the Domino’s Tracker app allows customers to track the delivery vehicle through GPS. Then, instead of waiting inside for the food to be delivered to their front door, the customer has to go outside and fetch it directly from the car using a unique code.

The aim of the Ann Arbor test is not to evaluate the vehicle’s technological performance, but instead to gauge how the customer interacts with a driverless delivery system. “We are really looking at the consumer insights gained in this test, what we call the ‘last 50 feet’ between the customer’s home and the car,” Domino’s told M:bility. “We know that the car and technology companies are working on the self-driving portion of the cars pretty intently, so that is not our focus.”

It is indeed strange that some of the first use-cases are in pizza delivery, but why not? – Nick Gill, Capgemini

In this case, Ford isn’t particularly interested in the technological aspect either. In fact, the vehicle will be driven by a human who remains quiet and inactive during the actual pizza retrieval process. “We have chosen to manually-drive the self-driving vehicle for this research project because the objective is to study customer interaction with the vehicle during the delivery process,” a spokesman for the OEM confirmed. “We are not testing the self-driving capability in this phase of the research, therefore manual driving is the safest way to conduct the study.”

Ford has teased an update on the Domino’s pilot programme in the future, but will not be sharing any lessons learned just yet.

Toyota and Pizza Hut

Others are at it as well. Toyota is partnering with Pizza Hut on applications of its e-Palette autonomous concept vehicle. Pizza Hut has long been working to optimise the overall delivery experience, and this is one of the latest steps in that journey. “In our ongoing and relentless pursuit to own and define the modern pizza experience for our customers, we are focused on technology-based solutions that enable our team members and drivers to deliver even better customer experiences,” said Artie Starrs, President, Pizza Hut, US. He described the project with Toyota as part of its wider efforts to “define the pizza delivery experience of the future.”

The fully automated, all-electric e-Palette concept reflects Toyota’s vision of what Automated Mobility as a Service (Autono-MaaS) could look like. Along with Pizza Hut and Toyota, development efforts will be guided by the insights from other e-Palette Alliance partners including Amazon, DiDi, Mazda and Uber.

Toyota doesn’t expect to start testing the e-Palette Vehicle Concept for a couple of years yet, with nothing happening before 2020. However, starting this year the partners will begin looking at more near-term ways to improve the delivery ecosystem. In particular, they are trialling dual communication technology in Pizza Hut delivery vehicles to capture data on driver patterns and behaviours. “The common ground between our two global brands is fuelled by innovation that enriches peoples’ lives,” explained Zack Hicks, Chief Executive Officer of Toyota Connected. He regards projects like the e-Palette Alliance as a big part of the company’s investment in “products and services that help provide mobility for all.”

Test bed

Delivery companies are clearly keen to tap into the potential of autonomy for the competitive edge it can provide. Some of the technology at play is truly innovative, with implications that stretch far beyond pizza.

“This is an easy test bed for the technology’s performance and consumer reactions,” commented Nick Gill, Chair of the Automotive Council at Capgemini. “There will clearly be niche applications that become important before mainstream autonomy kicks in. I would think they will be B2B, as there is so much more control and fewer stakeholders. That could entail urban mobility with city authorities or mobility companies; tests on isolated stretches of freeway and campuses or enclosed residential areas.”

Having a foot into this business as early as possible is seen by OEMs as their foray into being mobility firms rather than car manufacturers – Arunprasad Nandakumar, Frost & Sullivan

Gill also pointed to the irony behind some of the applications that are emerging through the pizza delivery segment. “It is ironic that for years the auto industry has criticised itself for not being able to provide good customer information about car deliveries, when pizza companies do it as a matter of course,” he pointed out. “I can track my pizza delivery, but I can’t track my luxury car delivery. It is indeed strange that some of the first use-cases are in pizza delivery, but why not?”

Pizza before people

In its favour, pizza delivery trials do offer OEMs important capabilities. Among them is customer interaction, the stated focus of the Ford-Domino’s trial. “Curbside delivery is one of the 12 key services where OEMs are likely to monetise autonomous technology in the next decade. While it is not the most revenue generating, it is likely to be one of the early use cases,” explained Arunprasad Nandakumar, Team Leader – Chassis, Safety & Autonomous Driving Systems, Mobility, at Frost & Sullivan (F&S).

Going by feedback from consumers, F&S suggests that goods mobility could prove a particularly promising entry point for autonomous functionality. Where consumers may hesitate over people-moving applications, they are more open to those that move products. “Our consumer survey reveals that initially, customers are likely to adopt autonomous features related to goods mobility rather than people mobility. The reason why OEMs are partnering with so many service providers is to understand how customers will interact with these vehicles, be it in mobility or logistics services,” Nandakumar told M:bility.

The pizza test case specifically targets low-speed urban applications, a segment that poses vast potential in general. “We expect vehicle manufacturers like Toyota to scale their delivery shuttles to people mover shuttles in city applications,” he added. Its e-Palette model, for example, has been designed from the start to be scalable and customisable for a range of MaaS businesses. It can be built with a variety of body styles, allowing it to transform between a goods mover and a people mover.

“At the end of the day, the servicification of the automotive industry is definitely one that the OEMs are gearing up for,” observed Nandakumar. “Having a foot into this business as early as possible is seen by OEMs like Ford and Toyota as their foray into being mobility firms rather than car manufacturers.”

This article appeared in the Q4 2018 issue of M:bility | Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue