If you were getting food delivered to your home a decade ago, it was probably one of two options: pizza or Chinese food. Then, digitally driven companies like Grubhub, DoorDash, and Uber Eats changed everything, creating a $220 billion dollar industry ready to deliver virtually any food diners’ desire.
Now, food delivery is poised to enter a new era that will be marked by the use of autonomous vehicles. This new trend is being eyed by the food industry as a way to bring much-needed efficiencies to a process that has long struggled to be profitable.
The Value Autonomous Vehicles Bring to Food Delivery
Autonomous vehicle delivery is being pursued across the last mile-delivery industry for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the cost savings it promises to bring. By taking the driver out of the equation, autonomous vehicles remove expenses such as payroll and benefits that delivery companies must cover. Autonomous vehicles have also been shown to dramatically reduce the number of driving-related insurance claims, which also translates to cost savings.
Food delivery costs are not cheap, with studies finding that delivery fees add as much as 40 percent to meal costs, without considering the tip. Autonomous vehicles are seen as a way to reduce those fees. Many of the autonomous vehicles that are being considered for food delivery are also smaller than conventional delivery vehicles, which cuts down on energy costs.
Autonomous vehicles are also projected to increase the speed of delivery times because they don’t need to take a break, meaning there is less delivery downtime. Autonomous vehicles also don’t suffer from the loss of productivity that distractions can cause with human drivers.
The “superhuman” capabilities artificial intelligence brings to autonomous vehicle navigation can also speed up delivery times. AI-powered navigation is aided by 360-degree cameras and sensors that are constantly monitored. AI-powered navigation also benefits from real-time data, some of which can be supplied by links to other vehicles, that can dynamically optimize routes and driving performance.
In dense urban areas, autonomous food delivery vehicles could also empower more efficiency by giving delivery services access to unconventional routes. Many of the delivery services already operating use robots that utilize sidewalks for delivery. Using bike lanes, sidewalks, and other pedestrian areas that avoid traffic congestion could allow for quicker deliveries.
The Challenges of Switching to Autonomous Vehicle Delivery
In general, food delivery is a segment of the last-mile delivery sector that requires special considerations. Many food items require special handling such as refrigeration or insulation to preserve heat because they are so delicate and can be easily damaged.
To gain approval from consumers, autonomous food delivery vehicles will need to take these factors into account. Bolt, which is a European company utilizing self-driving robots for food delivery, has incorporated insulated compartments into its vehicle designs to preserve food temperatures.
A recent study has also shown consumers want to see a high degree of competence in autonomous delivery processes. The novelty of having a robot deliver your burrito bowl will soon wear off if the service isn’t reliable and competent.
Complying with emerging regulations is another issue companies utilizing autonomous delivery vehicles will need to address. Regulators in the US have recently taken a greater interest in the mechanics of food delivery, issuing controls on the fees that can be charged for services. As autonomous delivery is subjected to greater scrutiny, companies may find themselves facing regulatory standards on issues related to food safety, road safety, and economic models.
Autonomous Vehicle Delivery is Out of the Gate
While much remains to be determined regarding the optimal ways to utilize autonomous vehicles for food delivery, some companies have already taken to the road. As early as 2021, robot food delivery vehicles developed by Starship Technologies could be seen on college campuses and some urban areas.
Additionally, in 2022, Chick-fil-A began test-driving autonomous delivery vehicles in Austin, Texas. And just earlier this year in 2023, Uber Eats announced it would deploy autonomous delivery vehicles in the near future.
This innovation in food delivery promises to reshape the industry. It gives all types of restaurants — from fast food to gourmet dining — a new tool for serving customer needs with greater efficiency. Ultimately, autonomous vehicles could provide much-needed capabilities to deliver the convenience and added value that today’s e-commerce culture has come to expect.
The author, Anar Mammadov, is the CEO of Senpex Technology.