Self-driving PR moves in Domino-Ford pizza deal, and new Uber CEO

After a very busy few months, the automotive industry seems to have quietened down. Ford and Domino’s partnership to deliver pizza using self-driving Ford Fusions sounds light-hearted at first, but it represents what could be an important shift in the battle for consumer trust in autonomous vehicles. It also comes in the week that Uber finally got a new CEO, who hopes to spruce up the smoldering garbage fire that is Uber’s public image.

For both companies, the goal is to improve public perceptions. Both Domino’s and Uber are offering a service (pizza and mobility, respectively), but while Domino’s is looking to gauge the receptiveness of its customers to a self-driving pizza delivery process, Uber is hoping to salvage its once-grand reputation, with the appointing of Dara Khosrowshahi – the former CEO of travel website Expedia, an openly anti-Trump American-Iranian.

First to Ford; it’s a small trial, just a single car, initially only taking place in Ann Arbor, Michigan – a town with a hefty university population that should keep the Fusion’s on their toes. Domino’s will offer randomly selected customers the option having their pizzas delivered in one of the cars – which will notably still be manned by a Ford engineer, and a researcher to observe the consumer interactions with the system.

The cars solve most of the journey, but the pizza still needs to get from the road to the customer’s home. The current solution is to alert the customer to the presence of the car, at which point they can head to the car and retrieve their pizza from the ‘Heatwave Compartment,’ – essentially a hot box housed in the rear compartment.

The current mechanism alerts the customer that the car is outside, and issues them an access code. This code is then entered on a touchscreen keypad next to one of the rear doors, which then opens to allow the customer to retrieve their baked goods through one of the rear windows.

From inside the vehicle, the Ford tech makes sure that the car complies with local laws, and doesn’t malfunction, while a separate researcher watches how the customers interact with the magic pizza wagon. A dark window tint should help hide the staffers from the customer, who will be hoping to observe an ‘authentic’ interaction between a consumer and the pinnacle of automotive technology.

From Domino’s perspective, it wants to ensure that customers will actually leave the home to collect the pizza from a car, or if the short walk proves too arduous for some purveyors of delivery pizza. Only if Domino’s sees that the system is viable will it then begin to do the calculations, to see if it is a more affordable way of delivering pizza than using a fleet of mopeds or cars.

Domino’s seems pretty serious about the approach. In the US, it partnered with GM to create the DXP – a modified Chevrolet Spark with a hotbox in the back, which had been designed as the ultimate pizza delivery vehicle, capable of holding up to 80 pizzas and a shed-load of sides. That GM deal didn’t focus on self-driving capabilities, and so the new Ford deal seems an evolution of the concept – replacing the human workers. Roush Enterprises, the company that was actually modifying the Sparks, is also involved in the Ford test – making the hotbox for the car.

In other approaches, Domino’s has used the DRU flying drone to deliver pizza in a highly publicized New Zealand trial, and said it was exploring similar trials in Australia, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Japan, and Germany. Domino’s also has a land-based DRU, a wheeled bot that can deliver up to 10 pizzas per trip, and boasting a cutesy design that Domino’s hopes will avert the malice of the local hoodlums.

“The majority of our questions are about the last 50 feet of the delivery experience,” said Russell Weiner, president of Domino’s USA “For instance, how will customers react to coming outside to get their food? All of our testing research is focused on our goal to someday make deliveries with self-driving vehicles as seamless and customer-friendly as possible.”

Turning now to Uber, and there’s not that much new information to report. HPE’s Meg Whitman was ruled out of the running a while ago, and GE’s Jeff Immelt has also passed on the offer. Whitman was liked by the media speculation, which largely thought that her outlook would help sweep away any remnants of Uber’s awful corporate culture – those that weren’t removed already amid a rather large exodus of staff.

Khosrowshahi’s name was not seen in those weeks of speculation, but was apparently one of three candidates being considered by the board – which also still contains former CEO Travis Kalanick, who was rumored to be plotting ways to regain control, in a rather Jobsian fashion. Immelt was definitely a board candidate, but Whitman very publicly ruled herself out of the process on Twitter.

But now Khosrowshahi is taking the helm, a man who has served as Expedia CEO since 2005. Under his leadership, Expedia carried out several notable acquisitions (Orbitz, Travelocity, and Trivago). Khosrowshahi also sits on the board of the New York Times.

At an all-hands meeting, Khosrowshahi was on stage with new Chief Brand Officer Bozoma Saint John, who said she wants to ‘humanize’ the company. The CEO said that an IPO is on the cards for 2019, and Kalanick received a standing ovation from the audience – following news that a lawsuit filed by investor Benchmark was being moved to arbitration (something of a win for Kalanick). There was no mention of the rumors that SoftBank was mulling a large stake in the company, or the ongoing Waymo lawsuit.

Uber also suffered its first self-driving crash California, after one of its Volvo XC90 SUVs was rear-ended at traffic lights. The incident occurred on August 16th, in San Francisco’s Richmond District. No injuries were reported, but Uber was on thin ice in California, after flouting the local DMV’s testing permit policy – and consequently having to move operations to Arizona.