The San Francisco pilot is not just a chance to seize on the food delivery market, but could also lend valuable insights when it comes to autonomous technology.
(TNS) — Robot cars will deliver prepared food and groceries throughout San Francisco early this year, thanks to a partnership between Cruise and delivery service DoorDash.
The pilot program from the San Francisco companies shows a potential new business direction for Cruise, the self-driving division of General Motors. The Detroit automaker has been vocal about plans to introduce self-driving taxis in 2019 but hasn’t previously discussed making money with robot-car deliveries.
“High utilization is one of the key things we’re trying to achieve with autonomous technology,” Cruise CEO Dan Ammann said in an interview Thursday. “Our goal is to have these cars used as much as possible, day and night.” Adding things like deliveries will help do that, he said.
Cruise has permits in California to test about 180 autonomous cars, which are required to have backup drivers at the wheel ready to take control. Its white Chevy Bolts with rooftop sensors are familiar sights in San Francisco, especially near its South of Market headquarters. Cruise and Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet, are widely considered front runners in the worldwide race among automakers, tech companies and others to revolutionize transport with self-driving cars.
Criuse and GM have discussed radically redesigning autonomous cars, removing the steering wheel, brake pedal and other manual controls. They have sought permission from federal regulators and are awaiting word.
Robot cars that deliver goods may need some special features, such as individual compartments that customers can unlock with cell phones. Ammann said that carrying cargo will be a design consideration.
The test runs in San Francisco will provide information that will help shape the design of the eventual autonomous delivery vehicles, he said.
Ammann, who was previously president of GM, took over the CEO role in December from Cruise co-founder Kyle Vogt, who remains as chief technology officer.
Several Bay Area autonomous-car companies are already testing robot-car deliveries in partnership with merchants, both locally and in other states. These deliveries initially may have an edge over robot taxis in that the rides don’t need to be as smooth and the companies don’t need to overcome passengers’ fears of getting in a robot-driven car. The catch, though, is that people must meet the cars curbside to retrieve their goods.
“We see autonomous vehicles playing a major role in the future of delivery as consumer behaviors continue to shift online, and we are confident Cruise’s leading technology will help us scale to meet growing consumer demand,” said DoorDash CEO Tony Xu in a statement. DoorDash also is testing deliveries with sidewalk robots.
The companies did not provide details about the size of the pilot project, other than saying that “select DoorDash customers” would have their groceries or restaurant meals delivered by Cruise autonomous cars.
©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.