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Future’s at curb with Domino’s, Ford test


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Kevin Vasconi, below, is Domino’s point person working with Ford to coordinate the first autonomous pizza deliveries in tricked-out cars, top photo.

The future is officially here, and it’s smothered in mozzarella cheese. Domino’s Pizza and Ford, through a home-state partnership in Ann Arbor, Michigan, have teamed up on a live-action research project that’s resulted in the world’s first pizza deliveries made by fully autonomous cars.

While it’s only up and running with one car, it’s a significant mile marker for both the automotive and restaurant industries that are undergoing epochal shifts as technology promises made decades ago are finally come to reality.

A self-proclaimed auto enthusiast—like everybody else in Michigan—Domino’s EVP and Chief Information Officer Kevin Vasconi said the project is so fun that he and others often find themselves working late and coming into the office early just to dive back into the work.

Future’s at curb with Domino’s, Ford test

Kevin Vasconi

“We have people volunteering to work on the project, because we have a lot of engineering geeks here,” Vasconi said. “It’s tremendously exciting, and I’ve been involved … literally since day one when we sat down with our partners at Ford and talked about what we might do.”

As nearly all automakers are testing countless facets of self-driving cars, this test with Domino’s is all about the human element—namely, how everyday consumers react to autonomous deliveries that, by design, only come up to the curb rather than the front door.

“They are going to get the self-driving vehicles all figured out, that’s not what this test is about,” Vasconi said. “It’s about starting to push, quite honestly, the limits around if you’re going to do package delivery, in our case perishable food delivery, how the consumer is going to react to that.”

With so many safety and regulatory concerns related to autonomous vehicles, Domino’s public message is that it’s primarily testing customer reactions to the futuristic pizza deliveries—of course while avoiding all the obstacles human and otherwise that every driver faces, be they homo sapiens or four-wheeled androids.

At press time, autonomous deliveries have been occurring at nearly all daytime and evening hours exclusively with Domino’s customers who opt-in as delivery hamsters. Vasconi said initial reactions have been largely positive, with whole families coming outside to take delivery in some cases, sometimes uploading the experience to YouTube and/or social media accounts, adding to the buzz.

Domino’s first phase of testing, using a heavily modified Ford Fusion sedan, will continue for another three weeks before doubling down with additional cars and new situations to conquer. All autonomous deliveries are recorded, and the company conducts post-delivery interviews to gauge the details of their reaction to the experiment.

Domino’s  driverless deliveries

Ann Arbor Domino’s customers who opt into driverless deliveries are invited to
participate in the test and share feedback.

“When you see a family bringing their kids out to the car and really getting into the experience, it just makes you smile,” he said. “It’s very, very cool … these are literally the first in the world in sleepy little Ann Arbor.”

Asked which company first proposed the experiment, Vasconi said it was a mutual decision, as Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle is friends with Ford’s new CEO, James Hackett. While acknowledging the massive wow factor of autonomous pizza delivery, he underscored the company is truly trying to pull the future forward in pursuit of a large-scale, national rollout of autonomous technology sometime in the undetermined future.

“We are absolutely committed to the best customer experience and customer choice,” he said. “I never want to lose an order because somebody finds it hard to do business with Domino’s, because we have a lot of competition and it’s very easy if you don’t like that Domino’s experience to go to Papa John’s or Pizza Hut—and we don’t want that to happen.”

As the conversation inevitably turned toward drones, and when we’ll start seeing pizza pies lowered from the sky, Vasconi said regulatory challenges with commercial drone deliveries are so complicated that it’s still unclear when that technology will be ready for takeoff, adding that autonomous vehicles are going to have faster adoption given all the vehicular infrastructure that already exists.

“We don’t want to be passive in this,” he said. “We want to help figure this out so we can be first to market.”

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