Dade County, Florida - Ford came late to the self-driving car wars, but is catching up fast with help from an unexpected source - a pizza chain.

That’s because it has side-stepped the usual route of passenger shuttles and ride-hailing apps, and joined up with Domino’s to create the world’s first driverless pizza delivery service.

That’s right: you phone, the Domino’s kitchen staff prepare the pizza and call up one of a fleet of self-driving Ford Focuses (Foci?). The car rolls up, the rear window opens by itself, the pizza is placed on an insulated shelf where the rear seat used to be and the car drives off by itself to wherever you phoned from.

When it gets there, it pings your phone (so much more civilised than hooting, like a human driver!), you go out to the sidewalk, punch a one-time PIN into a keypad on the passenger’s side C pillar, the rear window opens and there’s your pizza - piping hot and ready to eat.

And because there’s no driver, there’s no need for a tip. No double-parking (driverless cars don’t do that) causing additional congestion, and no pissed-off neighbours.

Why Miami?

Miami has major traffic issues: it was recently rated the 10th most congested city in the world, and fifth in the United States. Mayor Carlos Giménez is serious about the future of transportation; his city already has transport modes ranging from ride-hailing services and rail to buses and bicycle sharing.

He understands how self-driving vehicles can fit in and help enhance those efforts. Hence the Dade County pilot projects with Domino’s and, from March 2018, with private postal service Postmates, the results of which will be applied to the design of Ford’s first purpose built self-driving vehicle.

Learning the way

But first, specially equipped self-driving camera cars had to drive up and down every street in Miami - mapping them, learning the nuances of traffic flow at different times of day, where the one-way streets are and how long each traffic light takes to change - just as human drivers do when they move to a new area.

The difference is, that knowledge can be downloaded to a new car in moments, so that it knows its way around like a local from the word go.

The questions the Dade County Pizza Project will try to answer include:

Before a self-driving vehicle makes a delivery, how will employees stock it and send it off?

Can it make multiple deliveries in one trip?

How with customers react with the vehicle to retrieve their food or parcels, and how far from their homes are they willing to walk to get it?

What about maintenance?

With or without drivers, the cars will still have to be refuelled, cleaned and maintained after every shift - and it’s already known that the lenses of the cameras on self-driving cars have to be kept scrupulously clean, to prevent them from seeing dirt on the glass as obstacles in the road.

Which is why Ford is building an autonomous vehicle operations terminal in Miami, where the cars will be washed, their lenses cleaned, and routine maintenance and trouble-shooting taken care of - by humans.

IOL Motoring