More companies turn to driverless deliveries

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) have been grabbing headlines for years, but mostly because companies were testing them, and trying to make them ready for real-world use in more than just an experimental phase. The good news for developers is that such readiness seems to be growing into reality after all these years, and more companies are taking advantage of the improving technology.

Notably, thanks to a recent ad campaign that brought back beloved animated pitchman The Noid, Domino's is now putting autonomous vehicles on real-world city streets to deliver pizzas in Houston, Texas. Via a partnership with the robotics company Nuro, the chain-restaurant titan is allowing customers to opt into the testing program to have their pies and other items loaded into self-driving robotic vehicles, which can be opened with a unique PIN code.

Pizza isn't the only thing that will soon be delivered by AVs.Pizza isn't the only thing that will soon be delivered by AVs.

Domino's says this is the first fully autonomous pizza delivery service, and it has already been approved for testing by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Currently, there is no end date for the test program, and while only one Houston location of the restaurant currently allows for driverless delivery, it's expected that the effort will expand to other locations in the area in the near future.

"This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations," said Dennis Maloney, senior vice president and chief innovation officer at Domino's. "The growing demand for great-tasting pizza creates the need for more deliveries, and we look forward to seeing how autonomous delivery can work along with Domino's existing delivery experts to better support the customers' needs."

Other big companies getting involved
Domino's is not the only brand-name industry leader partnering with Nuro these days. The developer also recently made a deal with the delivery giant FedEx to test autonomous deliveries in Houston. FedEx currently has a fleet of more than 200,000 vehicles and 600,000 employees around the world, so this small-scale pilot is not expected to have any kind of impact on the company's broader operations in the near future. Instead, it's being conducted to understand how AVs can be integrated into its current operations.

Specifically, Nuro co-founder Dave Ferguson says, this is about "targeted use cases and markets," and it will involve a lot of feedback before these robotic vehicles can hit the streets to handle "inefficient deliveries" and add capacity at a time when demand for fast, accurate shipping is rising sharply in the wake of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Amazon recently made a deal with the AI software developer Plus to start incorporating more autonomous features into its existing fleet of vehicles, according to Forbes senior contributor Patrick Moorhead. Powered by the PlusDrive platform, the more than 1,000 Plus Retrofit vehicles are being put into use as a means of increasing safety for Amazon drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists. However, even when these technologies are put into place, Amazon vehicles will still require drivers to operate these vehicles for the foreseeable future.

On the other side of the world
Meanwhile, a group of three robotics startups recently partnered with the delivery service Foodpanda to run various delivery trials in Singapore this year, according to Digital News Asia. The hope is that, if these trials are successful, they will be able to handle last-mile deliveries in locations that are currently difficult for drivers to reach, especially at times of peak demand or in bad weather.

"These robots, which are meant to complement our riders, will allow us to increase our delivery capacity and serve more customers in a more sustainable and cost-effective way," Jorge Rubio, operations director of Foodpanda Singapore, said in announcing the program.

The trial will run from May to November 2021, and could be expanded to other parts of Singapore before it comes to an end, the report said.

Certainly all these trials are something companies the world over will be looking at carefully. In the still-developing world of AVs sharing streets with live traffic, there will likely be wins and losses, and everyone in the automotive industry has a vested interest in figuring out what works and why.

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