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Pepperoni, mushrooms … but hold the driver

Sylvain Charlebois is dean of the Faculty of Management and professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

People in Ann Arbor, Mich., are about to experience home food delivery without a driver. Domino's Pizza and Ford have paired up in a pilot project that will look at how humans interact with driverless food delivery cars. Ann Arbor is home to thousands of students, an age group which is unlikely to find this new technology a hindrance. However, this could turn into a very interesting social experiment for the food industry.

Customers ordering through Domino's will be able to track their delivery in real time by using a downloadable app on their smartphones. They'll receive an SMS, giving them a four-digit code they will need to use once the car arrives. But it's the last 15 metres of the delivery experience that will provide unpredictable results for Domino's. For example, the driverless delivery car may end up in the driveway or near the curb, and customers may not want to go out to the car if it is raining or snowing. Human behaviour can be difficult to predict at the best of times, and especially when dealing with food. This will be the first time a food service or retail company has used driverless cars to interact with actual consumers.

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This experience will undoubtedly offer convenience for customers in a variety of ways. With this app, expectations will be managed, and service quality – Domino's key strategic focus – will be more consistent. This is because delivery times will be streamlined, fewer pizzas will be damaged in handling mishaps and the customer won't have to deal with tips – at least not for now. No tipping will reduce price points, making delivered pizzas more affordable. For cash-strapped students, this is key.

For Domino's, the business case for a driverless fleet is unquestionably strong. Lower insurance costs, lower fuel consumption, consistent delivery times, no thefts, controllable temperatures to keep food safe for customers – and therefore, less waste – the list goes on. Domino's delivers more than one billion pizzas annually, and has more than 100,000 drivers. Running a driverless fleet could save the company millions of dollars. Embracing the concept of home food deliveries without having to hire drivers cannot come soon enough for the food-service industry, which is looking for ways to increase revenue beyond their regular foot traffic. Restaurant operators won't need to deal with the headache of hiring the right people for delivery, and delivery is an important means of expanding the brand outside their facilities.

Most of us who have ordered home-delivered food have had mixed experiences. But home delivery is no walk in the park for the drivers either. A recent survey in the United States suggests drivers often find themselves in unbelievably awkward situations, including being tipped with weed, being asked to eat with a customer who wants company, showing up during a domestic abuse situation and being greeted by a naked customer at the door. There is an endless list of unpleasant scenarios that would discourage anyone from contemplating home food delivery as a full- or part-time job.

A humanless home food delivery experience does offer a unique perspective on the market currency of convenience. For years, price has been king. In study after study, price has trumped any other feature consumers were looking for in food service. However, younger generations have a different take on convenience. Price remains a significant factor for higher revenues of course, but the constant quest for more convenience is now reaching the point of obsession. Getting rid of delivery personnel is now a realistic approach. With driverless delivery, one could potentially receive food without seeing a single human being. In the future, consumers could binge on their favourite junk food several times a week without the embarrassment of seeing the same delivery person.

No matter how you look at it, Domino's and Ford are onto something. After all, driverless technologies are consistent with what Domino's is all about. The company has been successful over the years with its mastery of home delivery. This project with Ford could make the company even more efficient. But not all of us need Domino's to get our food fix. Divorcing the human aspect from food is simply impossible for many food-service companies – thousands of them, in fact – and thank goodness for that.

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