Ford Motor Co. is taking its driverless delivery trials to South Beach to continue testing consumer response to receiving pizzas and packages from the back of a robot ride.
The automaker is deploying a handful of delivery vehicles on the clogged byways of Miami and Miami Beach to serve up Domino’s pizza, groceries and other cargo. They’ll be dressed up to look driverless—and will interact with consumers robotically—but they’ll be driven by humans for now while the company tests things like how employees stock them and whether consumers will walk to the curb to fetch their packages by hand.
“We are headed to Florida to test and prove out our business model,” Sherif Marakby, Ford’s vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification, wrote in a post. “What we learn from this customer experience research will be applied to the design of our purpose-built self-driving vehicle that we plan to launch in 2021.”
The Miami experiment, which expands on a test Ford conducted in Ann Arbor in 2017, is a sign the carmaker still sees driverless package delivery as the key to the self-driving future. As rivals including Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo and General Motors Co. are aiming to ferry human cargo without drivers this year and next, carmakers including Ford, Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. see transporting goods autonomously as a quicker path to profitability.
Ford still intends to eventually offer a ride-hailing service in the autonomous vehicles it will debut in three years, but the company is focusing first on delivery because of its history providing commercial trucks and vans to businesses.
The model also makes sense given the rapid rise of e-commerce.
“Delivering goods with autonomous vehicle technology is something very, very new,” Jim Farley, Ford’s president of global markets, said. “We’ve learned how complicated it can be. It’s a less mature space and it’s also kind of natural to us.”
Ford’s Chief Executive Officer Jim Hackett has struggled to convince Wall Street that the automaker has a winning plan for embracing the autonomous age. Ford’s share price has fallen 13 percent this year, while rival GM has eked out a 0.3 percent gain.
The Miami Domino’s test using Ford Fusions began last week and will run for eight weeks. Next month, Ford will also begin a trial with Postmates, a startup it’s partnered with that delivers groceries, take-out food and other goods.
While those two tests run, Ford and its self-driving technology affiliate Argo AI are also piloting a driverless fleet throughout Miami with cameras and sensors to create high-definition maps. Ford will also test an “operations terminal” where the autonomous vehicles will return to roost to be cleaned and serviced with the help of the automaker’s dealers.
“Autonomous vehicles are going to be here a lot sooner than most people think,” Carlos A. Gimenez, mayor of Miami-Dade County, said at a press conference in Miami.
“Miami-Dade County wants to know and learn from Ford about how these vehicles are going to be integrated into our infrastructure.”
Eventually, all these tests will converge into one vehicle that can ferry commuters during the morning and evening rush, while hauling cargo and food during less travelled periods of the day and night, Marakby said. The more hours the robot car is driving, the more money Ford can potentially make off the fleet of autonomous vehicles it plans to own.
“The business thrives on high utilisation and the best utilisation is when you have a diverse set of businesses that you can spread out throughout the day,” Marakby said.
The Ford test vehicles will be operating in a challenging environment. Miami ranks as the world’s 10th most congested city, where commuters spend an average of 64 hours a year stuck in traffic, according to Marakby.