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Houston, We Have a Pizza

Dominos has partnered with Nuro to begin delivering pizzas using its self-driving pods this week.

The delivery service will begin at a Domino's outlet in Houston, Texas, expanding to "many customers in many locations" as part of a long-term partnership, said Cosimo Leipold, Nuro’s head of partner relations.

The deal seeks to expand operational deployment of Nuro’s new R2 autonomous delivery pod, which operates at low speeds of up to 25 mph on roads, as well as help Dominos capitalize on rising online orders caused by the pandemic.

Nuro is a Silicon Valley startup (founded by two former Google engineers in 2016) that is backed to the tune of over US $1 billion from major investors including the Softbank Vision Fund and, more recently, Woven Capital, the mobility investment affiliate of Toyota Motor Corp.

This latest launch with Dominos adds to a string of other delivery deployments over the past 2 years with big name brands such as Walmart and Kroger. There was also a partnership discussed with Uber Eats which has not yet materialized.

This deployment is still very much a trial, with Domino’s saying that the test would allow the company to see how customers respond to robot deliveries. However, Domino’s isn’t the only fast-food chain thinking about autonomous robot delivery. In March, Chipotle decided to invest in Nuro as well, stating that Nuro could “change the traditional delivery model.”

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The announcement of this deployment is a key milestone for Nuro, which has had this partnership with Domino’s since 2019. Permission was even obtained to deploy ADV’s in Houston back in February 2020. With their vehicles finally about to hit the roads, this quite possibly represents the first such use of on-road autonomous delivery pods anywhere else in the world – outside of China of course.  

The race for developing small autonomous delivery vehicles (ADV) has intensified during the pandemic due to the higher demand for technologies that allow for less human contact. A study from researchers at Pompeu Fabra University looked at robot deployments world-wide and found 94 deployments (using 36 different types of robots) in the delivery category — numbers which appear to be growing.

Of these, Starship Technologies has worked together with Just Eat as early as November 2016 to deliver food with their ADV. KiwiBot has delivered food in trials since mid 2017 which were carried out in the campus of UC Berkley, and Marble has also been delivering food in a partnership with Yelp Eat24 in spring of 2017.

All of these are, however, a different class of delivery vehicles – designed to navigate sidewalks rather than actual roads. By comparison, operating on Houston’s roads is no mean feat. Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city, has one of the country's highest road fatality rates. According to Cosimo Leipold, Nuro’s head of partner relations, "Houston’s roadways create challenging scenarios for our technology to work with." There is a significant size difference as well, as Nuro is considered a medium sizes ADV whilst sidewalk robots are considered small ADVs. 

For ADVs, deployments in the food delivery category differ qualitatively from other type of deliveries, such as groceries and parcels. The need to account for food becoming cold and potentially higher customer expectations of timeliness makes this a more challenging use-case for autonomy. Therefore, this deployment between Nuro and Dominos could be taken as an indication of confidence in the growing maturity of the technology.

Written by Daban Rizgary,
RISE Mobility & Systems (Människa-autonomi)