Pizza Delivered by Robots? Ford and Domino's Are on It -- for Real

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Tech visionaries tell us that in the future, our pizzas will be delivered by robots. But how will that work exactly? 

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Believe it or not, Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) and Domino's Pizza (NYSE: DPZ) have teamed up to try to figure that out -- not in the far future, but starting in the next few weeks. 

The two companies will soon begin a test in which a self-driving Ford Fusion Hybrid will deliver pizzas to randomly selected Domino's customers in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

Is this just a marketing gimmick? 

I'm sure the marketing folks at Ford and Domino's will enjoy using this test to their respective advantages. But there is some genuine research going on here, because there are some genuine questions that need answers before a real self-driving pizza-delivery service could be launched. 

Consider this one: How should a self-driving pizza-delivery car handle the last part of the process -- actually getting the pizza into the hands of the customer? Here's what Sherif Marakby, who leads Ford's autonomous-vehicle effort, said in a Medium post about the test:

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The initial focus of our research together is understanding the last 50 feet of the delivery experience. What that means is we will be looking at how customers respond to this new experience, which will require them to interact with the self-driving car instead of a delivery person  -- walking out to the vehicle instead of just walking to answer their front door.

Understanding how automation will change the customer experience is a key part of how we're building our future self-driving vehicle business because we want to apply the technology in ways that enhance people's lives. 

Of course, this is a test, meaning that the self-driving Ford, a specially modified Fusion Hybrid from Ford's self-driving test fleet, will have a human "driver" and researchers on board to observe how the process works. But the car itself will make the actual deliveries. 

But the self-driving Ford has all those silly labels on it!

Dude, it's delivering Domino's in a college town. Of course it does. 

Okay, what does Ford get out of this?

Ford is planning to begin mass-producing self-driving vehicles for fleet customers in 2021. While a lot of those vehicles will likely be passenger cars or vans for use in urban ride-hailing services, Ford is also exploring the idea of self-driving delivery vehicles (for all kinds of things, not just pizzas). 

That could be a huge market that Ford, with its decades of commercial-fleet expertise, could be in a position to dominate -- if it can come up with automated delivery vehicles that work well with human customers. This test is a step toward doing that. 

(And if five years from now, Domino's wants to order a zillion self-driving pizza-delivery vehicles -- a distinct possibility -- Ford will be in an excellent position to win that business.) 

What does Domino's get out of this?

For Domino's, the test will help answer different but related questions. For instance, how does the customer experience compare with delivery by humans, and how can it be tailored to help their customers accept the changes?

Here's how Domino's CEO Patrick Doyle put it:

As delivery experts, we've been watching the development of self-driving vehicles with great interest as we believe transportation is undergoing fundamental, dramatic change. We pride ourselves on being technology leaders and are excited to help lead research into how self-driving vehicles may play a role in the future of pizza delivery. This is the first step in an ongoing process of testing that we plan to undertake with Ford. [Emphasis added.]

Just as Ford is building a relationship with Domino's, Domino's will be learning how Ford can tailor vehicles to help its business.

What's next for Ford and Domino's?

Both companies say that this is the first in what will likely be a series of tests, but the next step might depend on how Domino's customers in Ann Arbor react to the reality of a pizza delivered by a robotic vehicle over the next few months. In other words, stay tuned. 

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John Rosevear owns shares of Ford. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Ford. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.