The pandemic boosted Domino’s delivery business while idling the pizza giant’s experimentation with autonomous drop-offs for a while. But now the industry leader in agile delivery is back with a new test in Houston with Nuro, a leading player in the growing self-driving delivery space.
Customers now can place a prepaid order on the Dominos web site on certain days and times from the store in Woodland Heights, and have Nuro’s R2 robot deliver their order. The R2, Domino’s said, is the first completely autonomous, no-occupant, on-road delivery vehicle with regulatory approval by the U.S. Transportation Department.
“This is the technology we see on the horizon,” Dennis Maloney, senior vice president and chief innovation officer for Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Domino’s, told me. “The question of whether autonomous vehicles are coming has been answered. How it affects the delivery industry is something we need to understand. We’re a big delivery business, and we need to understand how the technology will disrupt that.
“We want to be on the leading edge of the process versus behind. There is it ton to learn. Where it ends up probably is not going to be where we thought But it’s going to disrupt the industry.”
Domino’s, of course, is used to disruption in the pizza business — but usually it has been the disruptor. Its trailblazing began decades ago with the company’s original-half-hour pizza guarantee. Ten years ago, Domino’s began a transformation around digital ordering technology that overturned the industry and helped the company race past Pizza Hut to the position of America’s No. 1 pizza maker, which it still holds.
A few years ago, Domino’s sought to get ahead of the possibilities in autonomous delivery by experimenting with Ford to produce a customized Fusion that drove autonomously with a human safety operator on board. In 2019, Domino’s began working with Nuro, a Silicon Valley startup launched by two former Google engineers. The two companies began teseting in Houston a robot with chase vehicles. Covid “stopped everything,” Maloney said.
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Now, Dominos and Nuro have fired up their testing again with some extra incentives to make material progress. For one thing, the pandemic-related boom in pizza delivery makes any kind of efficiencies more important. And second, Maloney noted, “right off this is a massive help for this store to make sure we’ve got enough delivery drivers for every delivery order.”
Initial testing pre-Covid focused on “trying to figure out how to do all the connection points” involved with a robot-delivered order, he said. The new testing, in a defined area around the store in a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood, is “designed to reach the point of true autonomy without a bunch of controls in place. We will be able to get a much better feel for the true consumer experience and also the impact on store operations. How do team members and customers work with robots?”
Maloney said the consumer experience of a Nuro robot, with its insulated holding comparatment, pulling up to the door is “actually great. The robot is very efficient. It’s a very fun experience. The consumer can interact and take the food out of it and feel very much like they’re in control. It can create a great consumer experience overall.
There’s no set timetable for how quickly the two companies will evaluate their testing or expand the service. “We are in this to learn,” Maloney said. “We want to create a great consumer experience and then quickly expand from there.”