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

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Autonomous Ford vehicles will start testing in the streets of Washington D.C. in early 2019, pending a commercial roll-out in 2021. Photo: Ford Motor Company

When Ford Motor Co. this year began testing a delivery service dependent on self-driving vehicles this year in Miami, managers quickly learned some of their basic assumptions about how the service would function, were misled.

An example: residents of high-rise apartments and blocks of flats end up being reluctant to descend to street level and meet a delivery truck on the sidewalk to claim their pizza.

It may seem obvious in retrospect, but as Ford prepares for the launch of a long-awaited enterprise backed by automated vehicles in three short years, the lessons from its early activities in Miami and the surrounding Dade County form the blueprint for that autonomous future.

Now, while Ford is building a second self-propelled hub in Washington, DC, announced last week with testing in early 2019, the company will rely on what it has learned in Miami as the basis for its testing in the country's capital and its ambitions beyond.

"We are going to take all the lessons from Miami and start in Washington, DC," said Sherif Marakby, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles, a subsidiary that handles Ford's self-propelled business. "We are not going to repeat the same things."

Deliver potential

Offering ride-hailing service to passengers is a central part of Ford's plans, but some of the most direct insights have been obtained from the delivery side of the tests. Ford has partnered with Domino & # 39; s Pizza and Postmates in that area and together the companies have discovered unforeseen opportunities.

Initially the companies thought that their delivery routes would remain within and between Miami Beach, the center of Miami and the Wynwood section of the city, where Ford maintains a corporate garage. But they soon realized that the desired destinations for deliveries existed outside these restrictions, spread across Dade County.

Argo AI, the technology company that builds Ford's proprietary propulsion system, has identified additional avenues to enable a more comprehensive service, which in turn has given a larger number of companies the chance to experiment. In several cases, they are companies that would otherwise not have considered to deliver to customers.

"In addition to the national companies we work with, as we have worked in Miami, we find local companies that want to work with us," said Marakby. "It's a big win-win situation, some local businesses do not have the ability to deliver and the economy can not work as an AV really can offer, so we can really offer them something special."

More than 70 local companies have used the Postmates delivery platform as part of the tests, with Ford using a specially designed Transit Connect that includes a locker system to secure packages and enable multiple deliveries along a single route. Apart from that, Ford works directly with five local companies – from florists to dry cleaners – to further investigate service platforms for delivery.

In general, Ford has been particularly careful in analyzing the delivery capacity of autonomous vehicles. Competitors have devoted much of their audience-focused efforts to either demonstrate the technology itself or to perform ride applications. Waymo has partnered with Walmart at a supermarket in a store in Chandler, Arizona, but consumers still have to drive a minibus to get their groceries.

Plans come together

Based on his experience in Miami, Ford will soon bring Washington in search of companies that have not yet considered integrating autonomous delivery into their customer offerings. In the same way, the geographic location of the project can change one day, including nearby suburbs such as Arlington, Va., And Bethesda, Md. But that is in the future. Crossing district boundaries in a self-driving vehicle would probably cause a stumbling block of regulatory complications.

For all agreements between Miami and plans for Washington, there are some important differences in the two pilot projects, perhaps starting with the traffic-restricted roads of the capital and the Byzantine street pattern. But the biggest difference can be in plan. In discussing the implications of autonomous service, district officials asked Ford to ensure that their services for rides and passengers are available in every corner of the city. Miami did not have such provisions.

"One of the unique things in talking with them is ensuring equal access to all eight departments," said Marakby about his conversations with D.C. officials. "That was very important to them, and it is very important to start with that assumption." What that means is that we have to examine another set of variables and how operations cover the whole city instead of choosing certain areas, such as Miami. "

The wide scope can affect the occupancy rate of each vehicle, a measure that Ford and others in the industry expect to be a significant barometer for a company's health based on self-driving technologies. Having two datasets from Washington and Miami will help Ford make plans, but if the company makes decisions, they are not the only test cities.

Marakby said that a third test bed will be announced next year, which will further build up a network prior to the company's 2021 commercial launch. But that is hardly on the horizon.

"To be honest, we still have a lot of work to do to set up the company in these two cities," said Marakby. "So it will take a while … We have to make sure that we really understand and understand these two cities, and do a thorough job."