If this year’s Consumer Electronics Show is any indication, the automotive industry’s pivot is clear: Self-driving vehicles are first for delivery of goods and next for people delivery by robo-taxi.

The implication is that reality has sunk in. The self-driving future is not just around the corner in 2020 or 2021, as many tech and carmakers originally promised. The corner is way up there somewhere because, let’s face it, autonomous vehicle (AV) technologies are damn hard.

But whether AVs are carrying goods or people, it turns out that building the right “human-robocar” interface is equally tough.

A host of car OEMs and Tier Ones are pitching the notion of autonomous delivery vans and trucks on the CES show floor. Ford is among the pioneers, keen on self-driven delivery vehicles. At its booth, Ford is showing off a van splashed with labels that say “Ford Research Vehicle” and “Postmates,” a San Francisco-based delivery service app company.

Ford Delivery Van Ford's self-driving delivery van shown at CES

Ford announced in November a deal with Walmart and Postmates, with plans for a service to deliver groceries and other goods to Walmart customers. The pilot program, scheduled to last about two months, will take place in Miami-Dade County, where Ford is currently putting its self-driving business operations to the test.

This isn’t Ford’s first trip around the robo-track. In partnership with Domino’s, Ford delivered pizza with its self-driving car (with a safety driver inside) in Ann Arbor, Michigan, between April and June of 2018.

When Ford launched that pizza service, it strove to make the whole “futuristic self-driving pizza delivery” idea cool. Ford outfitted Ford Fusions with lots of technologies — complete with an array of cameras, sensors, and a sophisticated lidar system — in addition to Domino’s Heatwave Compartment, meant to keep pizza nice and toasty during the duration of the trip. Customers could track the GPS progress of delivery through an upgraded version of the Domino’s Tracker, it said.

Ford Pizza Delivery Ford-Domino's pizza delivery pilot (Source: Ford)

You can learn a lot from delivering pizzas.

While walking around the show floor, I found Ford’s user experience expert manning the automaker’s booth and asked what lessons Ford learned from its pizza delivery experiment.

He shared a couple of things:

  1. A delivery van needs a speaker to give the pizza recipient an audio cue (delivered by a recorded message).
  2. A van must come with separate compartments for multiple trips.

One thing that Ford’s expert didn’t mention, and downplayed when pressed, was that couch potatoes ordering a pizza for delivery don’t like to get up, literally go outside, and walk up the street to collect their pie.

I mean, you expect pizza delivery to actually deliver — at the door.

It’s easy to see how the “last mile” problem could quickly queer the autonomous food delivery idea.

Ford’s user experience expert, however, insisted that this dilemma isn’t so bad. Some customers like the no-tipping feature of this service. Others simply don’t want contact with another human being, he added. And, of course, if customers can get a cheaper pizza by choosing robo-delivery, they’d prefer that, he said.

Right. People often bring up “discounts” to justify a flawed solution.

But of course, this is CES. Tech companies always think that the solution to technology problems is more technology. To make matters worse, carmakers love plunging into a meaningless race to show off “concept cars” — the more outrageous, the better — cars they might never launch.

For example, Continental, a German automotive Tier One, is using CES to share a fanciful vision of driverless vehicles autonomously deploying bots to facilitate last-mile deliveries.

Continental Robodog Continental proposes the Continental Urban Mobility Experience, a platform that deploys driverless vehicles by unleashing bots to solve problems of last-mile deliveries. (Source: Continental)

Seriously? Imagine your street crawling with little androids delivering groceries and Chinese food.

A platform called the Continental Urban Mobility Experience (CUbE), according to Continental, is designed to synchronize AVs with a platoon of delivery robots carried on-board. The company calls it “a holistic delivery concept,” touting increases in “availability, efficiency, and safety in the goods and parcel delivery value chain.”

Hyundai’s solution has a small car with robotic legs that walk at 3 mph over rough terrain. Capable of climbing a 5-foot (1.5-m) wall and jumping a 5-foot gap, the Hyundai Elevate could be useful for emergency rescues following natural disasters, according to the car company.

Hyundai explained that this is a part of a three-year project going “beyond the range of wheels.” Trouble is, the thing looks like a monster in a “Transformers” movie. I wouldn’t dismiss a walking car design — complete with robotic legs — for emergency rescues. But if that thing comes knocking to pick me up or deliver pizza, I’d hesitate to open the door.

Hyundai Robotaxi *Could Hyundai's walking car - complete with robotic legs - solve the 'last mile' problem? (Source: Hyundai) *

But let me get back to the topic: delivering goods via autonomous vehicles.

I get that Ford needs to develop a business for its self-driving cars after all this investment. Walmart, competing with online retailer Amazon, wants to reduce delivery costs to online customers.

In theory, getting rid of human drivers could reduce delivery costs.

But consider two hitches: cost and human behavior.

The AV technology is already way too expensive. Throw in robotic dogs or a walking car with robotic legs. Could Walmart still pay for the technology and make delivery service competitive against Amazon?

Then there’s the interface between customers and a robotic delivery van. A recorded audio message blasting out of a truck is mildly spooky. Besides, some people still like talking to a delivery guy once in a while. Remember Ross in “Friends,” flirting ineptly with the pizza girl?

Creating a technology fortress that keeps people from talking to people is tech progress that only a cyborg could love.

— Junko Yoshida, Global Co-Editor-In-Chief, AspenCore Media, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times