COMMENTARY: The future has arrived — and it’s ‘neat’

Carvana's vehicle vending machine in Raleigh. Photo courtesy of company. Video below shot by Joe Overby.

In a tweet, my friend and colleague Mor said it best: “Living in the future is neat!”

She was responding to the news in late August that online auto retailer Carvana had opened a vehicle vending machine in Raleigh, N.C. — its sixth overall and one that happens to be less than 16 miles from Auto Remarketing’s offices.

That same week, Domino’s Pizza and Ford announced a collaboration that begins with research on how consumers react to pizza delivered by self-driving vehicles.

Who’da thunk it — getting a car from a vending machine and food from an autonomous vehicle?

Neat and futuristic, indeed.

And it’s also the reality, not science fiction, of where we are technologically in late summer 2017, just a decade removed from the launch of the iPhone, which — along with its rival devices — helped spur a digital revolution and tech advancement in areas like food delivery, automotive retailing and the connectivity of the vehicles themselves.

Think about it: You can buy a car, order food and connect with your vehicle, all with the same device.

Then on top of that, sprinkle on some autonomous technology, and you’ve got a zesty blend of industries coming together to enhance the consumer experience.

And where better to start than pizza?

“Autonomous tech promises to change our lives in ways we can’t even imagine,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher and executive analyst at Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, in commentary provided by parent company Cox Automotive.

“But one area that’s easy to visualize autonomous tech serving is the well-established tradition of pizza delivery. We can already order and pay for our pizza through an electronic interface,” Brauer said. “If the physical delivery process can be carried out by an autonomous vehicle we’ll be close to the pizza-on-demand nirvana we’ve all secretly dreamed about.”

I agree with Brauer, though I’m not so secretive about my dreams of pizza-on-demand.

Aside from the smartphone and autonomous tech, though, another major catalyst to this revolution has been the willingness of many industries to investigate what consumers want in the experience and then make a change, whether they’re buying pizza, cars, clothes or cosmetics.

“We’re interested to learn what people think about this type of delivery,” said Russell Weiner, president of Domino’s USA, in a news release about the company’s collaboration with Ford. “The majority of our questions are about the last 50 feet of the delivery experience.

“For instance, how will customers react to coming outside to get their food? We need to make sure the interface is clear and simple. We need to understand if a customer’s experience is different if the car is parked in the driveway versus next to the curb,” Weiner said. “All of our testing research is focused on our goal to someday make deliveries with self-driving vehicles as seamless and customer-friendly as possible.”

The delivery process was a point of emphasis when I talked to Carvana co-founder and chief brand officer Ryan Keeton on site last week at the company’s Raleigh vending machine.

One of the benefits to having these facilities, he said, is being able to give the customer another option in terms of purchase fulfillment/delivery.

“Even though people are getting more comfortable in doing a lot of things online, giving people, again, that option and control of their choice just enabled us to fuel more growth,” as the vending machines have given buyers the chance to check out their cars and ease into a new experience, all while having the same benefits had the car been delivered, Keeton said.

He later added that from the beginning, part of the mission was to bring some of the “fun” back to car-buying, including a pick-up experience that was different than what had traditionally been offered. 

“We wanted it to be pure fulfillment that felt really fun and was on brand,” he said. “I think when you see some of our other markets, it’s a family affair. You’ve got whole families coming in and kids.

“They’re videoing everything and they’re sharing everything, and they’re super, super excited about it,” Keeton said. 

The vending machines also provide another level of efficiency and economics to vehicle delivery (as an alternative to physically hauling cars off site, which Carvana still provides), he said, while helping to spur some viral marketing through video sharing, for example.

Although at the time of the interview they were not yet installed in the Raleigh vending machine, the other sites have cameras that capture the moments of the vending process and then produce a short video that is emailed to the customer.

“Which is pretty sweet, because you can see your own pickup experience, and then share that,” Keeton said. “It is very much a shareable asset, but it’s certainly an own-able one … we’re becoming just as well known for the car-vending machine as we are for innovating automotive retail and online car-buying.”

Speaking of sharable assets (i.e. pizza), will Domino’s and Ford become well-known as the faces of pizza delivery pioneers?

Too early to say, in this project.

In this first phase of their research — which the companies announced Aug. 29 — there will be randomly selected Domino’s customers in Ann Arbor, Mich., who have the choice of having a Ford Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research Vehicle deliver their pizzas. There will be a Ford safety engineer driving the vehicle, as well as researchers on staff, the companies said.

Customer participants can also use an upgraded Domino’s Tracker to monitor their delivery via GPS. As the car gets closer, text messages will be sent to the customer with guidance and a unique code to activate the Domino’s Heatwave Compartment within the car.

That’s a lot of tech. But also, a lot of collaboration between the two companies.

“The alliance between Ford and Domino’s underscores something that will keep happening in automotive and beyond — partnerships,” Kelley Blue Book’s Akshay Anand said in comments provided to the media.

“As the world continues to integrate technology and automation, industries will continue to find creative ways to work together,” Anand said. “Given that automotive is one of the most important industries in the world, expect to see companies within the industry continue to look outside for chances to research consumers and vice versa.”

This collaborative approach was evident in quotes from a joint news release, where both Ford and Domino’s executives touched on the interwoven paths that food delivery and autonomous driving may be headed toward.

“As delivery experts we’ve been watching the development of self-driving vehicles with great interest, as we believe transportation is undergoing fundamental, dramatic change,” said Domino’s president and chief executive officer Patrick Doyle.

“We pride ourselves on being technology leaders and are excited to help lead research into how self-driving vehicles may play a role in the future of pizza delivery,” he said. “This is the first step in an ongoing process of testing that we plan to undertake with Ford.”

Sherif Marakby, Ford vice president of autonomous and electric vehicles, added: “As we increase our understanding of the business opportunity for self-driving vehicles to support the movement of people and goods, we’re pleased to have Domino’s join us in this important part of the development process. As a company focused on the customer experience, Domino’s shares our vision for a future enabled by smart vehicles in a smart environment that enhance people’s lives.”

And that’s good for business any way you slice it. 

Editor's note: See below for video inside Carvana's vehicle vending machine in Raleigh, N.C. 




Took a ride inside 's new vending machine in this afternoon

— Joe Overby (@AR_JoeOverby)

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