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Ann Arbor, Mich., residents will soon have food delivered to their doors by driverless cars as part of an intriguing socio-economic experiment.

Domino’s Pizza and Ford have paired up in a pilot project to see how humans interact with driverless delivery cars. This is the first time a food service or retail company has used driverless technology to serve consumers.

Customers can track their delivery in real time with an app on their smart phone. They’ll receive a text with a four-digit code they will use when the car arrives.

Ann Arbor is home to thousands of post-secondary students, an age group likely to embrace this new technology.

The last 15 metres of the delivery experience will prove most unpredictable. The driverless car may end up in the driveway or near the curb. Customers may not want to go out to the car if it’s raining or snowing. Human behaviour can be difficult to predict, especially when dealing with food.

But this is an experiment in convenience. Service quality, Domino’s key strategic focus, will be more consistent: delivery times will be streamlined, fewer pizzas will be damaged and the customer won’t have to tip. Removing tipping reduces price, making delivered pizzas more affordable. For cash-strapped students, that’s key.

For Domino’s, the business case for a driverless fleet is strong. The upside includes: lower staffing costs, fewer staff recruitment and retention issues, lower insurance costs, lower fuel consumption, consistent delivery times, no thefts, controllable temperatures to keep food safe for customers and, therefore, less waste. Domino’s delivers more than one billion pizzas annually and has more than 100,000 drivers, so running a driverless fleet could save the company millions.

Driverless home deliveries can’t come soon enough for the food service industry, which wants to increase revenue beyond regular foot traffic. Simplified delivery is a key expansion strategy.

Ordering home-delivered food is risky, in part because drivers can be unreliable. But home delivery is no walk in the park for the drivers, either. A recent American survey suggests drivers often find themselves in awkward situations, including being tipped with marijuana, being asked to eat with the customer, witnessing domestic violence and being greeted by naked customers. An endless list of unpleasant scenarios would discourage potential food delivery drivers.

For years, price has trumped all other features that consumers want in food service. But younger generations have a different perspective: while price remains a significant factor, the constant quest for convenience (on both sides of the food continuum) is reaching the point of obsession.

So dispensing with delivery personnel seems realistic.

Consumers could soon binge on their favourite junk food several times a week without ever seeing another person, let alone the embarrassment of seeing the same delivery person with each order.

Domino’s and Ford are onto something. Domino’s has been successful in part because of its mastery of home delivery. This project could make the company even more efficient.

But taking the human factor out of the food experience is impossible for thousands of food service companies. For many people who equate food with social interaction, that’s a good thing.

Sylvain Charlebois is Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, dean of the Faculty of Management and a professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University, and author of Food Safety, Risk Intelligence and Benchmarking, published by Wiley-Blackwell (2017).

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