New Zealand could become first country to use Domino's pizza delivery robot
So today, we found out the Government is working with Domino's to test the company's autonomous pizza delivery unit, named DRU.
Domino's says DRU, which bears a striking resemblance to the robot EVE from Pixar's WALL-E, has been built with "sleek, refined forms combined with a friendly persona".
The prototype has separate compartments to keep pizzas hot and drinks cold, while travelling on the footpath "at a safe speed" from the store to the customer's door.
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Domino's says the robot is able to select the best path en route to its destination, with on-board sensors allowing it to see - and avoid - obstacles along the way.
OK. So far so good. But, let's be honest here, there are questions.
How will DRU navigate the hills of Wellington, the quake-cracked streets of Christchurch, or gridlock in Auckland? How will he make it anywhere before the pizza gets cold, with those tiny little wheels?
Will he come equipped with a taser to defend himself from drunken vandals intent on prying the pizza from his insides? How will he ring doorbells, or get up stairs?
If he falls over, will he be able to prop himself back up, or will he just lie on his side, contemplating the futility of existence as his wheels spin and the (battery) life starts to drain from his body?
'IT COULD PUT US ON THE MAP'
Domino's NZ general manager Scott Bush said the robot had been in development "for the best part of 12 months" as part of the company's focus on technology and innovation.
Bush said tests in controlled environments on Brisbane streets had gone well, although DRU had required "a little bit of" human control at points.
The company was aware of the risk of theft and vandalism and was looking into security alarms "and all sorts of funky things" to protect against interference, while the robot would be waterproof.
With speed an issue and a maximum range of 20 kilometres before recharging was needed, Bush acknowledged the prototype required further development, but said it was "not a gimmick - it's reality".
'HUMAN TO HUMAN EXPERIENCE' STILL IMPORTANT
"It's like most things: you look back at the original prototype of anything that ends up being successful, and you think wow, haven't we come a long away? I don't doubt that this will be any different."
Bush hoped controlled testing of the robot could begin in New Zealand within months, while the company also wanted to build more "brothers" for DRU.
However, it would be at least two to three years before customers could go online and order a pizza delivery via droid.
It was also unlikely that it would lead to the elimination of pizza delivery drivers, as many customers would still want the "human to human experience".
'EXCITING OPPORTUNITY FOR NEW ZEALAND'
Transport Minister Simon Bridges said Domino's had made contact "a few weeks ago" to inform the Government about DRU and see if New Zealand was interested in hosting trials.
Bridges said there were "no particular legal blockages" to trialling driverless technology on the country's roads, but the authorities needed to ensure any trials met safety requirements and other regulations.
Backing projects like Domino's were about "cementing our country's place as an early adopter and tech-savvy place", he said.
"If we were to see more of this, i think it would really enhance New Zealanders' lifestyles: we'd be ahead of the curve, we'd be getting hold of advanced technologies earlier."
Officials from the Ministry of Transport and the NZ Transport Agency would work with Domino's about the possibility of trialling the system in New Zealand and safety management planning, Bridges said.
GAME OF DRONES
Domino's isn't the first company to look to driverless technology as a business opportunity - and, cynics might add, free publicity.
Technology giant Google has been trialling autonomous cars since 2012, while e-commerce company Amazon created headlines in 2013 when it announced plans to trial deliveries via aerial drone.
Cormac McBride, a director of industry-led group Intelligent Transport Systems NZ, said "just about every vehicle manufacturer" was looking into driverless technology, along with a number of other companies.
McBride said the major obstacles with driverless technology were figuring out how to handle software malfunctions, as well as compensating for "unpredictable human behaviour" and what to do if a human needed to take over.
"How long does it take for the human to change from reading a book, using their phone, putting on their lipstick, that kind of thing, back to recognising the environment they're in, assessing what needs to be done, and taking control of the vehicle?"