A Ford self-driving delivery vehicle in Miami.
Mmmm.... robot full of pizza... Ford

The automaker Ford is bringing autonomous deliveries from Domino’s and Postmates (plus Lyft rides) to Miami-Dade County.

If you didn’t get a chance to experience the pizza delivery of the supposed future in Ann Arbor, Michigan last summer, fret not: Self-driving Domino’s Pizza vehicles are now roving the streets of Miami.

It’s part of a new research partnership between Miami-Dade County and the automaker Ford. Over the coming months, the company will deploy custom-built autonomous cars across Miami and Miami Beach through a variety of partnerships with other businesses. Apart from the world’s largest pizza chain, they’ll include the on-demand delivery company Postmates, the ride-hailing giant Lyft, and others yet to be announced.

Consumers will soon be able to opt to order their pies, groceries, and on-demand rides to be conveyed via robot (with backup drivers behind the wheel in case of emergency). The county, meanwhile, hopes that the experiment can be a learning opportunity and a signal to other self-driving technology leaders.

“We want to learn from Ford what it is we need to do to get ready for these vehicles, so that when AVs become a reality, fully, we’ll be one of the first communities to get them,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Giménez. “We want to let the world know that Miami is ready to be a testbed.”

According to the latest Pew polls, Americans are “more worried than enthusiastic” about the development of driverless vehicles. Do people really want to share the roads with job-stealing, crash-preventing robots? Maybe not. But for carmakers, it’s more a question of familiarizing the populace with a disruptive new technology. To accomplish this, partnerships with familiar brands could be a savvy move.

The Domino’s “research vehicles,” a few of which are already on the road in Miami, are specially modified Ford Fusions with lidar hats and built-in pizza warming compartments. Stuffed-crust lovers have to walk out of their homes and up to the curb to retrieve their pies from the cars; a robot voice emanating from the vehicle instructs them how to unlock the special pie window. (Some of you may ask: Can’t the human emergency driver perform this chore, or even bring the pizza to the door? But you are clearly missing the whole point of this automation exercise.)

The autonomous Postmates deliveries and Lyft rides haven’t started yet, but they will work similarly, according to Sherif Marakby, Ford’s vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification. Key for Ford, Marakby said, will be to see how consumers in relatively dense, urban Miami-Dade will react to these new behavioral norms compared to more suburban Ann Arbor, where the cars were tested in summer 2017.

“In Ann Arbor, some people might be coming out in their PJs. But that’s not the busy, bustling downtown of a big city—it might be different in Miami,” he said. The service and its user interface might have to be tweaked accordingly.

Likewise, the performance of the vehicles themselves—which are powered largely by Argo AI, a major Ford investee that builds artificial intelligence for self-driving vehicles—will be put to the test in a larger city with more pedestrians, cyclists, and construction zones. “Curbside management is a big challenge when you’re picking up and dropping off goods, even in a normal, non-AV situation,” Marakby said. “We’re going to see what an AV would do when it encounters double-parked cars where it needs to go.”

More broadly, this is also a chance for Ford to test out a variety of business models for self-driving technology. The automaker has stated that it plans to deploy large fleets of robotic cars built for ride-hailing purposes by 2021. But such vehicles hold promise for freight and package delivery, too. Through its partnerships with other cities, such as San Francisco and New York, Ford is testing other new mobility modes, including bikesharing and microtransit shuttles.

What do cities get out of it? Giménez, for his part, is a believer that self-driving cars could reduce transportation expenses and cut back on personal vehicle ownership in Miami-Dade. In the city of Miami, about 80 percent of households own cars. He also hopes that the city can eventually make use of the maps and that Ford and Argo AI will create to underpin and guide the self-driving vehicles.

Of course, few cities have had meaningful success in gaining access to the wealth of trip data generated by new private mobility services, even though many believe much of this information could be invaluable for planning purposes—and in the case of autonomous cars, to prevent the dreaded “zero occupancy” gridlock of the future, in which empty robo-cars clog the roads. Companies often argue that privacy and competitive concerns prevent them opening up their stores. This disagreement has led to all manner of ill will between tech companies and the cities they test in; Pittsburgh soured on Uber after the ride-hailing behemoth fell short of the city’s expectations of it as a data-sharing civic partner.

Giménez and Marakby both said that they have not had conversations about data sharing in relation to the self-driving pilots. “We have no agreement with any of the companies,” Giménez said. “They’re hoarding it very well.”

John Kwant, the vice president of Ford’s City Solutions group, expressed enthusiasm for recent efforts to create third-party repositories of anonymized and aggregated trip data to help cities get the information they need. “Cities want to achieve the ability to orchestrate things,” Kwant said. “Companies are going to eventually need to offer that up, either by political pressure or mandate.”

Whether that’ll be the case in Miami remains to be seen. Meanwhile, there’s pizza.

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