Autonomous Food Deliveries (And Robots) Put To The Test

Autonomous Food Deliveries (And Robots) Put To The Test

The last mile can be vexing for firms aiming to get their products in the hands of consumers. For food companies, the logistics of the last 10 feet can prove a challenge as well.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday (March 11) that a number of firms have moved to embrace autonomous delivery, where efforts are largely in test phases, and focused largely on door-to-door drop-offs done through vehicular means. Robots? Well, the publication says they are not “riding to the rescue anytime soon.”

The goal is to cut costs, said the Journal, where automating delivery can cut costs by about 40 percent by removing the cost of labor.

Tests across cities such as Miami and Las Vegas conducted by Domino’s Pizza have brought pies to customers, ferried in Fords. The robot route has been tried in California, bringing groceries or meals to consumers.

Beyond the tests, a wide-scale rollout of autonomous delivery, on wheels or via robot, would be several years away, said McKinsey, and might stretch across decades. Any 10-yard solution solved by robotic means is said to be at least a decade away. The meals by wheels route might not have a swift transition to being completely hands-free, either, as the report noted that deployments seen by the likes of Waymo (from Alphabet) and General Motors (with autonomous vehicles via Cruise) still have “safety drivers” in the vehicle.

The Domino’s effort illuminates some of the considerations and challenges of the autonomous delivery model. The linkup with Ford still relies on human-piloted Ford sedans that are, as the report stated, “outfitted to appear autonomous” and have radar, are tied to apps and track the delivery vehicle’s progress. Customers pick up their deliveries from the vehicle at curbside.

Alexandra Ford English, director of operations for Ford’s autonomous vehicle business, said of its autonomous endeavors that “we’re making changes every day to our business model.” Some customers did not like having to come to the curb to pick up an order, the newswire noted – a dissatisfaction that also marked deliveries done by driverless car firm AutoX, which had initially offered grocery deliveries but has switched to prepared foods. Turns out customers were more amenable to picking up the latter from cars parked outside their homes, it was reported.

There still exist some challenges when it comes to the robot offerings, noted the Journal, because there still exists hesitation over “sidewalk robots” that would deliver items across the last 10 yards. Concerns linger over the robots’ functions in everyday life. Consider the fact that in San Francisco, a permit system mandates that nine sidewalk delivery robots can be used in certain, defined locations in the city. Elsewhere, some states like Washington are seeing advocacy for requirements that would mandate human operators behind the robots.

“You’re delving into the world of psychology,” said Steve Westly, managing director at the venture firm Westly Group (Westly has not invested in firms tied to robotic efforts). “Robots bumping into you on the sidewalk – it’s a weird, scary, odd thing.”