Dumb Ideas: Domino’s and Ford to Test ‘Autonomous Pizza Delivery’

Ford and Domino’s Pizza are joining forces to test self-driving pizza delivery vehicles in Michigan. The venture is an attempt to better understand how customers respond to and interact with autonomous vehicles and assess the future relevancy of the technology. But the cars in question aren’t actually self-driving, they’re simulated autonomous vehicles doing market research.

Essentially, Domino’s customers in Ann Arbor, Michigan will have the option to accept pizza deliveries from a standard Ford Fusion Hybrid with loads of visual accoutrements to denote a cutting-edge test vehicle and a human operator obscured by a partition and some tinted glass. The customer is the test platform, not the car.

While it’s understandable that removing the driver from the equation might someday save pizza chains tons of dough, there are a few things neither Ford, nor Domino’s, seem to have considered.

First of all, nobody wants to walk out into the pouring rain or bitter cold to retrieve a thin cardboard box that protects the food they’ve been waiting an hour for. Secondly, pizza delivery is one of the most lucrative careers available to young people. I did it for years (also in Michigan) and, while not particularly glamorous work, I was compensated far better then my teenaged peers.

However, I also know that it’s in fashion to say youngsters shouldn’t be making decent wages and entry-level jobs aren’t supposed to pay enough for a person to live upon — bootstraps and all that. Maybe this isn’t a profession that needs to persist after all. Domino’s is likely testing customer reactions to the “technology” in the hope that it won’t have to pay for drivers in the future. Although a fleet of autonomous cars probably isn’t cheap.

Framing this entirely as a service, problems still abound. The event requires customers to walk up to the car and input a four-digit code on a keypad mounted on the car. That will open the rear window and let customers retrieve their order from a heated compartment. The compartment can carry a maximum of four pizzas and five sides, according to Domino’s.

What it doesn’t do is deliver you drugs, which is a time-honored tradition among small-town delivery drivers. Throughout my tenure in the pizza industry, I noticed we always had at least two marijuana distributors on hand before they were fired for the side business and eventually replaced by someone else who, coincidentally, also happened to sell pot.

That’s illegal, and I certainly can’t endorse such an activity. But it’s also a societal praxis dating back decades that we might lose if pizza delivery goes autonomous.

On a similar note, imagine the sort of terror that might befall especially stoned individuals who are forced out of their homes to interact with a technology they might consider to be an alien life form. Those poor individuals only wanted to procure some munchables and enjoy cartoons while contentedly stupefied, but now they’re being confronted with a vehicle they could deem haunted.

It’s a delivery driver’s duty to not only ensure safe passage for the food but also place the customer at ease. Patrons may be shut-ins, blackout drunk, enfeebled by age, exceptionally lonely, heroically lazy, or so preoccupied with a child’s birthday party that they don’t have time to leave the house to futz around with a keypad before carting multiple containers of food inside.

Ford and Domino’s market research may uncover some of those bitter truths too — even with someone hiding in the driver’s seat.

Sherif Marakby, Vice President of Ford Autonomous Vehicles and Electrification, described the project as ethnographic research in an interview with The Verge.

“We don’t want to wait until we get everything done on the tech and remove the driver. We’re trying to start doing the research. We still are working on the technology, because it’s not ready to be put on public streets,” he said. “It’s simulating that the vehicle is in autonomous mode.”

“The key thing is that our development is going to benefit from these partnerships,” Marakby continued. “We will incorporate changes when we launch at scale in 2021, whether it’s perishable or non-perishable deliveries.”

Automation is fine when it ushers in a marked improvement of a present-day endeavor. But the main gripe with delicious pizza is that it never seems to arrive on our doorsteps quickly enough. There isn’t much of an issue with how it actually gets there.

[Images: Ford Motor Company]

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