America Will Trust Driverless Cars When They Deliver Pizza

By now, you’ve heard more than enough about humanity’s anxieties over driverless cars. We don’t know whom an autonomous vehicle would sacrifice in an unavoidable fatal collision, or even if we trust them enough to let go of the wheel while we read the news. But the road robots are here with a peace offering that America can’t ignore: pizza.

Starting Wednesday, Domino’s and Ford are partnering up for a tasty test of the future, experimenting with a single self-driving Ford Fusion that’ll make deliveries around Ann Arbor, Michigan. Over the next six weeks, random customers can opt in to get their pies delivered by the car, which sports a touchscreen interface for customers to retrieve their order. The car will appear to be self-driving, with a just-in-case driver onboard along with sensors to help researchers watch how people handle these self-service pizza wagons. Not since Little Caesars introduced its little mascot with an imperial appetite has pizza had the chance to normalize something so world-changing.

So you have to wonder: is this the warm, greasy key to the luddite’s heart? Here’s some half-baked hypothetical hot takes about this brave new world.

Start me up. This driverless experiment is about more than undercutting your roommate’s stockpile of DiGiorno—it’s about testing our reaction to driverless tech. “We’re developing a self-driving car not just for the sake of technology,” Ford’s vice president of autonomous vehicles Sherif Marakby told reporters last week. “There are so many practical things that we need to learn.” Just pay no mind to people behind the tinted windows, taking notes on how dumbly you interact with a driverless delivery car.

If autonomous vehicles can show us that they’re doing their jobs well, then maybe people will ease up to the idea that they can carry us, too. Then again, if a high-profile accident occurs, it could have an unwanted *ahem* domino effect on public opinion.

An autonomous Ford Fusion delivering pizza is pictured.
Would you walk all the way outside for pizza? (Ford)

A new twist on the last-mile problem. Here’s Domino’s President Russell Weiner describing the new frontier in pizza transport:
“The majority of our questions are about the last 50 feet of the delivery experience. For instance, how will customers react to coming outside to get their food?” Gripping. How will people solve this new door-to-street transportation challenge? What mode will they choose: sandals, sneakers, or slippers? Will this produce a new household-based sharing economy where people make retrieval part of their payment? Or perhaps you’ll pay extra for a drone to drop it right on your doorstep.

Drive-through disruption! When the automobile became ubiquitous, it necessitated the creation of the drive-through window. If automation means fewer people driving in cities, now we could see city design put things in reverse. With lower delivery costs, everyone’s apartment practically has a pizza place right downstairs! Who needs mixed-use development when you can get a three-topping pizza for $7.99 with no tip?

Another bonus from autonomous anonymity: shielding customers from the embarrassment of repeat pizza binges. Without human interaction, no longer will you run into the same pizza guy for the second or third time this week.

Rain or snow. Domino’s wants to see if people will retrieve their food in bad weather—and we’re still not too sure how driverless cars can handle those conditions. But bigger climate concerns are also no laughing matter: the pilot program in Ann Arbor has a heater that can carry just 4 pizzas and 5 sides. Will the Domi-No-Driver gag actually reduce gas consumption? Or will it just increase the number of trips, exacerbating emissions and choking us with traffic? If these small-scale deliveries only replace bicycle couriers for short trips, it will just make things worse.

The end of deliverymen. This question is a double-edged pizza cutter. On the one end, there’s the potential fix for the problem of pizza redlining—where the perceived danger of neighborhoods dissuades drivers from dropping off pizza. As we saw last year with Amazon’s same-day delivery maps, there are many more excuses to exclude a neighborhood from a service. But using the last four digits of your phone number on a car-mounted keypad means it’ll take more to access its munchies. These delivery cars aren’t exactly at the same level of risk for robbery as drivers.

And with GPS tracking, there’s less of an excuse for breaking the promise of “30 minutes or less” to customers. But not everybody’s nice to robots.

On the other hand, there’s a huge potential for job losses. Weiner says he could see his company’s 100,000 drivers taking on different roles, but it’s difficult to see how the company absorbs that many people. Here’s how he described the trade-off, according to the Detroit Free Press:

“What our drivers have seen is when we come out with innovations, more people order pizza and when more people order pizza … that increases demand, which will require us to hire more people,” Weiner said. “And frankly, there are some places where maybe your driver will not want to drive.”

Without drivers, there’s also no pressure from stoners to accept weed as a tip. But we might have to bid farewell to the awesome Domino’s motorcycle wheelies or delightful stories of the daily heroism of pizza deliverers. Not only that, the (probably) heavily regulated driverless future means the end of the line for pizza delivery pranks a la Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Talk about a buzzkill.