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Ford’s ‘self-driving’ vans are now delivering food in Miami

How do you order take-out in a self-driving, post-human world?

Food delivery workers are some of the most overworked and underpaid people in the US — and now you can add “soon to be endangered” to that list. Food couriers have recently joined truck and taxi drivers in the category of jobs that are most likely to be made obsolete by self-driving technology. For evidence, look no further than Ford’s current experiments with self-driving delivery vans in Miami.

Ford has been using Miami as a test bed for its self-driving vehicles since earlier this year. And more recently, the auto giant joined with Postmates to see how people ordering takeout food would interact with an autonomous delivery van.

It’s more complicated than it sounds. In our current analog world, a delivery worker rings your doorbell and hands you the food you’ve ordered. But how do you make that transaction in a self-driving, post-human world? Ford’s answer? Tiny lockers and access codes.

Ford has retrofitted a fleet of its Transit vans with touchpad-accessible lockers, from which Postmates customers with the right access code can retrieve their food. The lockers are varying sizes to accommodate different types of deliveries. (Some even have cupholders.) Audio prompts and light displays are used to guide customers to the appropriate locker.

The pilot is underway in Miami and Miami Beach, with “over 70 businesses” participating, including restaurants and hardware stores, the company said in a Medium post. The vans are manually driven by human drivers for now, as Ford is just using them to test different methods of food delivery. Eventually, the automaker says it will deploy a fully self-driving delivery service by 2021. “Ultimately, we are testing how businesses and consumers interact with a self-driving vehicle,” Ford says.

Ford previously deployed these faux self-driving delivery vehicles in partnership with Domino’s Pizza for a limited trial in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The company is currently testing for-real autonomous vehicles in Miami, too. These research cars are driving all over the city in autonomous mode while collecting high-definition mapping data. Safety drivers remain behind the wheel of all of Ford’s autonomous vehicles for the time being, although the company is currently building an AV without traditional controls like pedals and steering wheels, which it plans to release by 2021.

Miami will also serve as a test bed for Ford’s forthcoming Transportation Mobility Cloud, an open-sourced platform for cities and other transportation partners that it announced at CES. Companies that have announced partnerships with Ford, like Lyft and Postmates, will soon be able to provide ride-hailing trips and deliveries using Ford’s self-driving cars.

Waymo recently said it would acquire 62,000 self-driving minivans from Fiat Chrysler, while a SoftBank fund said it would invest $2.25 billion in GM’s self-driving unit Cruise. While its rivals in the self-driving world make power moves, Ford is widely seen as playing the long game by focusing on small experiments and eschewing major deal announcements.

Last month, Ford stunned the automotive world when it officially stated that it would be abandoning all of its traditional sedans and hatchbacks for the North American market. Instead, it said it would be doubling down on its two major areas of focus: its extremely profitable line of trucks and SUVs and a heavy investment in more forward-looking mobility solutions like connected cars and smart cities. Later this month, Ford is expected to announce its plans for the historic Michigan Central Station in Detroit on June 19th in what it calls “the start of a new era of innovation and mobility.”