The arrival of fully self-driving cars on UK roads in the not-all-that-distant future raises many big questions. Are they safe? How will they interact with human drivers? How many lives can they save? What happens with car insurance? Can they really cure congestion? Who will be liable in the case of an accident?
But here’s a slightly different autonomous car-related question that Ford’s senior management have been pondering: how much would you pay for a pizza delivered by a self-driving car?
This pizza poser grew from Ford’s partnership with Domino’s Pizza to trial autonomous deliveries in the American states of Michigan and Florida, using specially converted Fusions. It sounds like a gimmick, but Ford vice president Jim Farley insists it has been hugely informative.
“Just think about people in apartment buildings,” he said. “There’s no driver to get the goods from the car to the customer, so what price do you have to discount [the pizza] for them to walk down and get it from an autonomous vehicle?”
Even if you’re addicted to hot slices of cheese, tomato and pepperoni-slathered dough, this might not seem like the most pressing issue related to autonomy. But it is the sort of question that highlights the many ways driverless cars will impact society.
When it comes to food delivery, for example, the relationship between hungry customer and pizza purveyor is changed. An autonomous vehicle can’t get from the road to your door: you have to go and get the pizza from the car (customers are sent a four-digit code, which they type into a keypad on the car to unlock a storage compartment).
That’s extra inconvenience, especially if you live in an apartment or it’s cold and wet outside. So it stands to reason you should pay less for it, in the same way collecting a pizza from a takeaway is cheaper than having it delivered. But how much less?
More questions follow. Given they’ll presumably be programmed to obey traffic laws, where will self-driving cars park to make deliveries? And what will they do if they can’t find a space and your pizza is getting cold? What do you do if you check your pizza and discover the order is wrong? And how long – and I’m not joking about this – until autonomous delivery cars feature drones that can drop goods right on your doorstep?
That’s just pizza delivery, too. The early uptake of autonomy is likely to come from commercial firms, given the potential for cost savings (since cars won’t need drivers). Ford is also conducting autonomous tests in the US with ride-sharing firm Lyft and Postmates, an ‘urban on-demand delivery’ company. And each of those tests will raise countless more questions.
In isolation, those questions, on topics such as the price of a pizza, might not seem that significant – certainly compared to questions of, say, legal liability in the case of an accident.
But combined, such unknowns show the significant changes autonomous cars will have on society.
Enough big picture stuff, though. Let’s get back to the, erm, Mighty Meaty issue: how much of a discount would it take for you to collect a pizza from an autonomous car, rather than have it delivered to your door by a driver?