Self-driven car may deliver pizza

Larry Burns, a consultant to Google and a professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan, said the day of the autonomous car getting closer. Burns spoke about driverless cars on Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington. SHFWire Photo by Matias J. Ocner

By Matias J. Ocner

Read in SHFWire

WASHINGTON — Cycling past pedestrians, cars and oncoming traffic is no easy feat, but for Breyon Valentine, 48, a deliveryman for Domino’s Pizza, it’s part of the job.

With a black helmet strapped on, Valentine drops off an average of 15 pizzas during his shift in downtown Washington.

“You do what you have to do,” said Valentine, who has learned to maneuver around taxicabs and other unpredictable obstacles.

But one day, Valentine might not have to peddle or steer a vehicle to deliver pizza. Instead, all he’ll have to do sit on a cushioned seat and press go.

At least that’s what innovative tech companies like Google, Tesla and Uber are racing to build with the autonomous car — a driverless vehicle that senses its environment and avoids traffic without human input.

During a discussion at the National Press Club on Wednesday, Larry Burns, a consultant to Google and a professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan, said the day of the self-driven car is inching closer.

According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel, nearly 1.3 million people die worldwide in road crashes every year.

Breyon Valentine, 48, delivers Dominos pizzas to office workers in Washington. He averages 15 pizza deliveries during his shift and believes the idea of an autonomous car is a good one. SHFWire Photo by Matias J. Ocner

“If we can realize the full potential of connected and autonomous vehicles from a safety standpoint, the experts tells us we can reduce 90 percent of the crashes. If we do that one day sooner, we’ve saved 3,000 lives,” said Burns, who is the former corporate vice president for research and development at General Motors.

“What’s exciting about the period we’ve entered into now is that we see a whole new DNA for the automobile emerging,” he said.

Oil dependency is another obstacle tech gurus are trying to ditch with the autonomous car that runs on electricity.

“You have cartels practicing illegal activities like OPEC, and you have national oil companies that make decisions very far from the free market that own 90 percent of the U.S. reserves,” said Robbie Diamond, president and CEO of Securing America’s Future Energy.

“It matters to us that we find a fuel source that diversifies what we put into our vehicles to move around,” Diamond said.

With more than 254 million registered passenger vehicles in the U.S., according to the Department of Transportation, the need for a new source of fuel is highly desired and lucrative.

For Domino’s Pizza, the idea of someday buying a fleet of autonomous vehicles is promising. However, costs are an issue.

“Domino’s is made up of 800 independent business owners or franchisee, and half of those people only own one store,” said Lynn Liddle, executive vice president of Domino’s Pizza.

“The return on investment has to be there for either purchasing a fleet of autonomous vehicles, or you know, making the math work,” she said. “We think anything is possible, but it has to work for a small-business person.”

Collectively, the company drives about 10 million miles a week, which is about half a billion a year in the U.S. alone. Domino’s also has stores in 80 countries.

“We most definitely look at this as an emerging technology and something that will be really important for us. It could bring speed and safety to our business model,” Liddle said.

As for Breyon Valentine, the idea of automated cars replacing his bike seems like a good one, at least as long as an employee is in the car to ensure customers receive their orders.

“They can’t just come to the car, pick up the pizzas, and then roll out,” Valentine said. “I see the future as the cartoons ‘The Jetsons,’ where we’re up in the air instead of on the ground.”

Reach reporter Matias J. Ocner at matias.ocner@scripps.com or 202-408-1492. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

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