Pizza in D.C.? Ford to expand autonomous delivery service

Ford autonomous vehicles will begin testing on the streets of Washington D.C. early in 2019, in anticipation of a commercial deployment in 2021. Photo credit: Ford Motor Company

When Ford Motor Co. started testing a delivery service that relies on self-driving vehicles this year in Miami, executives quickly learned some of their basic assumptions about how the service would function were misguided.

One example: Residents of high-rise apartments and condominiums, it turns out, are largely reluctant to descend to street level and meet a delivery vehicle at the curb to claim their pizza.

Perhaps it seems obvious in retrospect, but as Ford readies for the launch of a much-anticipated business underpinned by automated vehicles in three short years, lessons emerging from its fledgling operations in Miami and surrounding Dade County are shaping the blueprint for that autonomous future.

Now, as Ford establishes a second self-driving hub in Washington, D.C., announced last week with testing beginning in early 2019, the company will rely on what it has learned in Miami as the foundation for its testing in the nation’s capital and its ambitions beyond.

“We’re going to take all the learnings from Miami and start with that in Washington, D.C.,” said Sherif Marakby, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles, a subsidiary that handles Ford’s self-driving business. “We’re not going to repeat the same things.”

Delivering potential

Providing ride-hailing service to passengers is a central component of Ford’s plans, but some of the most immediate insights have been gained from the delivery side of the testing. Ford has partnered with Domino’s Pizza and Postmates in that realm, and together the companies have unearthed unforeseen opportunities.

Initially, the companies thought their delivery routes would stay within and in between Miami Beach, downtown Miami and the city’s Wynwood section, where Ford maintains an operations garage. But they quickly realized desired destinations for deliveries existed beyond those constraints, throughout Dade County.

Argo AI, the tech company building Ford’s autonomous-driving system, mapped additional roads to enable more comprehensive service, and in turn that has allowed a wider swath of businesses to experiment. In several cases, they’re businesses that otherwise would not have considered offering delivery to customers.

“In addition to the national companies we’re working with, as we’ve worked in Miami, we’re finding local businesses that want to work with us,” Marakby said. “It’s a big win-win. Some of the local businesses don’t have the ability to do delivery, and can’t get the economics to work in the way an AV can really provide, so we can really provide them something special.”

More than 70 local businesses have used the Postmates delivery platform as part of the tests, in which Ford is using a specially designed Transit Connect that contains a locker system to secure packages and enable multiple deliveries along a single route. Separately, Ford is working directly with five local businesses — from florists to dry cleaners — to further examine service platforms for delivery.

Broadly, Ford has been especially meticulous in analyzing the delivery potential of autonomous vehicles. Competitors have devoted much of their public-facing efforts to either demonstrating the technology itself or conducting ride-hailing projects. Waymo has partnered with Walmart on a grocery service at a store in Chandler, Ariz., but consumers still need to ride in a minivan to fetch their groceries.

Plans coalesce

Based on its experiences in Miami, Ford will quickly canvass Washington in search of businesses that may not have yet considered integrating autonomous delivery into their customer offerings. Likewise, the geography of the project could someday change, incorporating nearby suburbs such as Arlington, Va., and Bethesda, Md. But that’s in the future. Crossing district lines in a self-driving vehicle would likely involve a thicket of regulatory complications.

For all the similarities between Miami and plans for Washington, there are some key differences in the two pilot projects, starting perhaps with the capital’s traffic-clogged roads and byzantine street grid. But the biggest difference may be in intent. In discussing the implications of autonomous service, district officials asked Ford to ensure their ride-hailing and passenger services are available in all corners of the city. Miami had no such stipulations.

“One of the unique things in talking to them has been ensuring equitable access across all eight wards,” Marakby said of his conversations with D.C. officials. “That was very important to them, and it’s very important to start with that assumption. What that means is we’ll have to explore a different set of variables and how operations cover the entire city versus choosing certain areas, like Miami.”

The broad scope may affect the utilization rate of each vehicle, a measure that Ford and others throughout the industry expect to be a telltale barometer for the health of a business based on self-driving technologies. Having two datasets from Washington and Miami will help Ford plan, but as the company makes decisions, those won’t be the only test cities.

Marakby said a third test bed will be announced next year that will further establish a network ahead of the company’s 2021 commercial launch. But that’s barely on the horizon.

“To be honest with you, we’re going to have a lot of work to do to set up the business in these two cities,” Marakby said. “So it’s going to be a little while. … We need to make sure we really get it and understand these two cities, and do a thorough job.”

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