Nuro

A self-driving robotic vehicle developed by Nuro is parked outside the Domino's at 3209 Houston Ave. on Tuesday The Woodland Heights store is offering autonomous pizza delivery as part of a pilot program. (Photo by Adam Zuvanich) 

One of the world’s largest pizza chains and a growing robotics company are on the cutting edge of food delivery.

Their path to the future is starting in Woodland Heights.

Domino’s announced that its location at 3209 Houston Ave. is launching a pilot program this week in which select customers in the neighborhood store’s delivery zone can choose to have pizza brought to their homes by an autonomous vehicle developed by Nuro, a California-based robotics company that began operating in Houston two years ago. Its self-driving, electric-powered R2 model, which has storage compartments, a touchscreen interface and a top speed of 25 mph, will be deployed for curbside deliveries along with traditional human drivers.

“We’re very excited about this,” said Dani Bulger, a corporate spokesperson for Domino’s. “I believe we’re the first pizza company that has launched self-driving delivery.”

Bulger said the pilot program would last for an unspecified period and declined to provide specifics when asked about the geographic area eligible for autonomous delivery, the number of robotic vehicles being used as well as the times and dates when the new service would be available to customers. She said Tuesday morning that the Nuro service was “now live,” but it did not appear to be operational during the lunch hour.

Two Nuro employees stationed outside the store early Tuesday afternoon said the self-driving vehicle in the parking lot was in demo mode. Shortly before that, The Leader arranged for a Woodland Heights resident who is a regular Domino’s customer and lives a few blocks from the store to place an autonomous-delivery order using instructions provided by Bulger.

But the resident did not have the option to select autonomous delivery while placing the online order at dominos.com.

Dan Mitchell, Nuro's city and community engagement manager, said no autonomous deliveries had been made as of Wednesday morning. He said no deliveries were made on Tuesday because of unfavorable weather early in the day.

“Safety is really, really important to Nuro and our deployment,” Mitchell said. “Depending on weather, road conditions, if school’s in session at Travis Elementary and there’s lines of cars going ahead or waiting to drop off kids, we don’t need to have it running all the time.”

When the autonomous delivery option is available to customers who place prepaid online orders, Bulger said the service will come with the same fee charged for traditional delivery and that the vehicle’s progress can be tracked using GPS. She said customers will receive text messages with a pin number that can be used to open the storage compartment once the vehicle arrives at their home, and to alert them when the car has left the store as well as when it is two minutes away.

Once the Nuro vehicle has arrived at the curb, Bulger said customers will receive another text notification if they have not retrieved their order within two minutes. If another two minutes pass without the order being retrieved, she said the vehicle will return to the store.

Bulger said customers should call the store at 713-868-3030 if that happens, or if there is some sort of problem or mistake. Each R2 deployment will be for one order at a time, she said.

“This is a test that we’re doing,” she said. “We’re hoping to see how customers interact with the robot. We look forward to learning about different data. Do customers prefer autonomous delivery or do they prefer regular delivery?”

Mitchell said Nuro also is excited about the launch of the pilot program with Domino’s and receiving feedback from customers. The robotics company is about 5 years old and operates in California, Arizona and Houston, where Nuro has partnered with Kroger, CVS and the Houston Food Bank to make home deliveries during the last two years, mostly in the southwest part of town.

“The idea of commercial service is to offer better-quality service at a lower price point,” Mitchell said.

Bulger and Mitchell both said their companies’ goal is to extend automated delivery, and Mitchell said that would not necessarily result in the elimination of jobs for delivery drivers. He said Nuro’s grocery-delivery service in Arizona has promoted job growth, because automated delivery orders increased and there was a greater need for employees who could fill those orders and load the robotic vehicles.

In the case of Domino’s, Mitchell said the autonomous delivery service aims to eliminate the need for customers to drive to the store and pick up their orders, and not the need for human drivers.

Mitchell said the use of the R2 model also comes with benefits for the environment, since the vehicle is electric and not powered by gasoline, and for the safety of neighborhood residents and families. The robotic car is narrower and more compact than a traditional vehicle, which Mitchell said creates more space on the road for other vehicles as well as cyclists and pedestrians.

He also said the Nuro vehicles are equipped with 360-degree cameras and a series of sensors that can recognize people and their pets and react accordingly, including veering in one direction or another, slowing down or coming to a complete stop.

“Even if you’re not getting the delivery service, you’re hopefully still benefitting from Nuro in Houston,” Mitchell said. “The delivery driver is not texting and not rushing to get the delivery to the neighborhood. Your neighbor who may be older and shouldn’t be driving anymore is not taking a big Cadillac out on the roadway. Instead, a smaller, safer electric vehicle is bringing them an item they need.”

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