Three million pizzas. That’s the daily sales for Domino’s, which has 16,100 stores around the world. While humans have been doing all that work, the company has been experimenting with robot replacements in recent years. The latest will be a small trial in Houston later this year, using a fully autonomous mini delivery van called the R1, made by California-based Nuro.
Nuro already has a track record for autonomously delivering groceries from supermarkets. It began in August 2018 in Scottsdale, Arizona, with robotified Toyota Priuses, then progressed to a purpose-built delivery vehicle called the R1 in December. Scottsdale delivery operations have ended, but in April, Nuro launched autonomous Prius deliveries (with a human monitor onboard) from a pair of Krogers markets in Houston, with plans to move to the R1 later this year.
About eight and a half feet in length and “half the width of a Toyota Corolla,” the R1 has no space for a human operator—just cargo compartments. “It has no steering wheel, it has no brake pedals . . . you can’t physically get in and drive it,” says Cosimo Leipold, Nuro’s head of partner relations.
Unlike the sidewalk-based delivery vehicles Amazon began testing in January, Nuro’s R1 drives on real urban and suburban streets, at up to 25 miles per hour, alongside human motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians.
Customers in Houston ordering from one to-be-named Domino’s store will have the option to select robot delivery and will receive a one-time PIN code to open the van’s pizza compartment when it arrives. The service will begin “later this year, probably Q3 [or] Q4,” says Leipold.
It’s no coincidence that Nuro started with Arizona and Texas—which have liberal autonomous vehicle testing policies. Nuro has relatively deep roots in the nascent autonomous vehicle world. Cofounders Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu were principal engineers for the Google self-driving car project that later became Waymo.
And Domino’s seems a natural fit for the robot trial, given the company’s stated goal of improving technical prowess across its operations. In 2016, for instance, it partnered with Flirtey for a New Zealand demo billed as the world’s first pizza delivery by drone.
In 2017, it partnered with Starship Technologies, a maker of small, sidewalk-cruising robots, to make deliveries in a few European cities. And in 2018, it joined Ford for autonomous delivery tests in cities including Ann Arbor, Miami, and Las Vegas. The self-driving Ford Fusion cars have a human minder aboard, however, unlike Nuro’s R1 vehicles.