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 Medium 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.”
Packages Vs. People
The Miami experiment, which expands on a test Ford conducted in Ann Arbor last year, 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 in an interview. “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 Tuesday. “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 traveled 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 utilization and the best utilization is when you have a diverse set of businesses that you can spread out throughout the day,” Marakby said in an interview. “So you’ll have a Ford AV providing both the ride hailing and the goods moving in 2021.”
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. And more people died in crashes on the section of I-95 that runs through Miami-Dade County in 2015 than any other county along the highway that extends along the entire Eastern Seaboard.
Ford has many questions it hopes to answer in the test, such as whether a driverless delivery vehicle should double park like the human-driven ones do in big cities today, and whether consumers are willing to pad out to the curb to retrieve their dinner from a compartment in a robot ride.
“All these pieces have to come together to stand up this business in 2021,” Farley said. “That sounds like a long way off, but it’s really not.”