In partnership with the Education Fund, a collection of nonprofits working in the U.S. and other countries to improve the quality of education, Ford and Pittsburgh-based autonomous car startup Argo AI say they’ve teamed up to make contactless deliveries in Ford’s Fusion Hybrid self-driving test vehicles. The launch of the pilot, which is taking place in Miami, comes as Ford continues to build out a service for autonomous ride-hailing and goods delivery in Miami-Dade County.
Some experts predict the coronavirus outbreak will hasten the adoption of driverless vehicles for delivery. A study published by CarGurus found that 39% of people don’t plan to use human-driven ride-sharing services post-pandemic for fear of insufficient sanitation. Despite driverless cars’ need for regular disinfection and the public’s misgivings about their general safety, they promise to minimize the risk of spreading disease because they inherently limit driver-rider contact.
Ford says it and Argo will make weekly contactless deliveries of groceries and school supplies furnished by the Education Fund’s Food Forests for Schools program over an eight-week period. These will reach the families of approximately 50 students attending Feinberg Fisher K-8 in Miami Beach and Riverside Elementary School in Little Havana. After the Ford and Argo team collects the bags at each school, the deliveries are made in Ford’s self-driving Ford Fusions with two test specialists.
As the self-driving cars progress along their route, the two specialists — one behind the wheel and one in the passenger seat — will be monitoring the vehicles and the road ahead, ready to take over if necessary, according to Ford. At each drop-off location, one of the Argo test specialists makes a contactless delivery. Argo says it is working with city and state officials and plans to mandate social distancing, institute regular cleaning, and provide personal protective equipment, as well as HEPA-certified filters, air recirculation devices, and physical barriers inside the vehicle’s cabins.
Ford autonomous vehicle business director Navin Kumar says the pilot will provide an opportunity for Argo to refine its self-driving system. Among other challenges, the cars have to find specific locations to make a delivery, park properly, and ensure the drop-off is made safely. They will also encounter a range of locations, including high-rises, duplexes, and small apartment buildings, some without curbside or driveway access, as well as traffic in densely populated areas and residential neighborhoods.
“With each delivery we complete through this pilot, we gain a deeper understanding about how our self-driving services can help organizations and businesses fulfill delivery orders in a safe, reliable, and trusted manner,” Kumar wrote in a blog post. “This is the first time we’ve integrated the self-driving capabilities from Argo with our customer-facing partnerships. This is giving us meaningful real-world insights into what is required to run an efficient business.”
Based on the success of the pilot, Ford says it will continue to expand and refine its moving goods business with similar pilots in 2021.
Ford pushed the unveiling of its driverless service from 2021 to 2022 earlier this year, but it’s business as usual at Argo, which has over 1,000 employees and a $7.25 billion valuation. Beyond Ford, Argo has close ties with Volkswagen and is testing in cities around the U.S., including Washington, D.C.; Pittsburgh; and Austin.
Ford is only the latest to repurpose its self-driving fleet for charitable deliveries during the pandemic. Some, like Waymo and Cruise, have received pushback from drivers, who say they’re being forced to work in dangerous conditions. According to the Verge, Waymo drivers were recently told to drive in suffocating ash from wildfires and after COVID-19 infection rates had reached new peaks.