Ford’s driverless delivery vehicle actually has a driver

While we’re starting to here much talk about how the taxi industry could be one of the first to feel the impact of self-driving technology, it seems the food-delivery business could also be transformed by autonomous vehicles.

Ford is already at it, teaming up with on-demand delivery platform Postmates to test a meal-delivery system for folks in Miami.

But while the automaker continues to work with artificial intelligence company Argo A.I. to perfect the performance of its driverless vehicles, Ford is currently sending out self-driving research vans that are made to look like driverless cars. In other words, there’s a driver sitting behind the vehicle’s tinted windows, though the customers don’t necessarily know it.

It’s doing this because it wants to spend time getting to know how businesses and people interact with autonomous vehicles when they deliver goods, a process that it says will help it to hone the method of dispatch and collection.

For its own platform, the process begins after a customer orders a meal via an app. Once the food has been prepared, a restaurant worker places it inside the van. This is done by tapping a numerical code into a keypad fixed to the outside of the vehicle, which opens one of its lockers.

The driverless car then makes its way to the customer’s address. When it gets close, the customer receives a notification and code on their smartphone. Upon arrival, spoken instructions from speakers on the van offer guidance on what to do, and once the code is recognized, the appropriate locker lights up and slides open, enabling the customer to collect their order.

“Our Postmates pilot is currently underway in Miami and Miami Beach with more than 70 businesses participating, including local favorites like Coyo Taco,” the automaker’s Alexandra Ford English wrote in a blog post.

Commenting on the van being used in the pilot scheme, she added: “This is our first self-driving research vehicle modified specifically to test a variety of interfaces — the touch screen, the locker system, the external audio system — to inform the design of our purpose-built self-driving vehicle that’s scheduled to arrive in 2021.”

Ford has said before that it’s keen to launch an autonomous delivery service “at scale” in the same year, using a vehicle that it said could be modified to “carry people and cargo interchangeably,” suggesting it has ridesharing services in its sights, too.

That would put it up against the likes of Volvo and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, who have inked deals to sell their vehicles to Uber and Waymo, respectively. Other automakers, General Motors and Renault-Nissan among them, have also been forging partnerships as they develop their own self-driving cars.

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