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Pizza and self-driving cars. At first glance, it seems like an unlikely duo but in just a couple years from now, the two of them together might be our new normal.

As we start to see greater technological advancements in the auto sector, it’s no surprise that there’s been a greater push for self-driving cars. With the dozens of pilot projects that have been executed the last couple years, business people across all sectors have been keeping a watchful eye on the advancement of this technology. Some have even adopted a more proactive approach and have launched pilot projects of their own.

With autonomous cars expected to take over the roads within the next decade, businesses are already finding innovative ways to incorporate this technology into their business model — the most famous example being Domino’s automated pizza delivery.

Before we unpack how that came to be, we’ll be exploring the history of self-driving cars, the advancements its made and learning how autonomous driving will reshape delivery services globally. While all this may sound light years away, you might be surprised to learn that the future is almost here.

 close up on man pressing autonomous mode in car

A Brief History of Self-Driving Cars

Contrary to popular belief, the idea of self-driving cars has been around for a long time.

In fact, the idea for it came around the same time cars started appearing on the road, with some of the first self-driving experiments taking place as early as the 1920s. Some of the more notable trials occurred 1925 when inventor Francis Houdina demonstrated one of the first radio-controlled cars. He drove it around the streets of Manhattan without anyone in the front seat. According to news outlets at the time, the vehicle could start the engine on its own, shift gears, navigate the streets and sound the horn when necessary. Not bad for the 1920s!

While a number of promising trials continued to take place after that, it wasn’t until the 1980s when the first autonomous cars started to appear. In 1984, Carnegie Mellon University’s Navlab project introduced it’s first prototype which wasn’t fully functional until the late 1990s where it achieved a top speed of 20 mph.

Another trial that appeared during this period was the Eureka Prometheus, a joint collaboration between Mercedes-Benz and Bundeswehr University Munich, which was considered one of the biggest research and development programs of its time for autonomous vehicles. The project itself lasted eight years, with a number of conclusions presented to the public during it’s wrap up in 1994.

The project developed a number of prototypes including one model (W140 S-Class), which drove itself almost entirely from Munich to Copenhagen in the mid 1990s. Since then, Mercedes-Benz has continued to independently research driverless technology, but this trial was one of the first to truly revolutionize the industry and show people where autonomous cars could take us.

In recent years, the interest for self-driving cars has only grown. Many auto companies like Nissan, Audi and Toyota have all executed their own pilot projects as well as major tech companies like Google. With advancements constantly being made, many cities and countries around the world have incorporated new laws permitting the testing and use of autonomous cars. Some places California and Florida, as well as countries like Germany, Spain and the Netherlands all have laws that permit autonomous car testing in real traffic.

Breakdown of Autonomy Levels

Today, you can find some sort of automation in almost all new vehicle models. Different levels of automation are broken down using the SAE autonomy scale. These levels are broken down accordingly:

Level 0: The vehicle has no automation whatsoever. The driver is responsible for navigating the vehicle which includes steering and controlling speed, with no technological assistance at all.

Level 1: Limited driver assistance. This is typically under specific circumstances only but includes systems that can control steering and speed. At this stage, autonomous level is not sophisticated enough to control both at the same time.

Level 2: At this level, there a lot more driver-assist functions to help optimize the driving experience. This typically includes some control over the steering and speed of the vehicle. These capabilities shift some of the responsibility away from the driver, but still require supervision at all times in case the driver needs to intervene.

Level 3: Vehicles can drive themselves in certain situations but still require human supervision and intervention, if necessary. A human driver must be ready to take over the wheel when the vehicle encounters a situation that exceeds its capabilities.

Level 4: Vehicles are mostly autonomous and can drive itself under most conditions, but still requires assistance when faced with specific situations.

Level 5: The vehicle is fully autonomous. The car can drive itself at all times, under any circumstances with no driver or supervision necessary.

The Case Of Automated Pizza Delivery

Now that we have a bit more knowledge on what automation is and some of the history behind it, it’s time to dive into a fascinating case study that grabbed the world’s attention.

In 2017, Domino’s Pizza made headlines for partnering up with Ford to launch a pilot project to test drive the concept of automated pizza delivery. Tested in Michigan, the original home of Domino’s Pizza, the automated delivery vehicle delivered pizzas to select users in the area to test drive its function.

Much like other food delivery apps, the Domino’s app notified users how far along their delivery was. Then, instead of the usual knock or ring of the doorbell, users received a text notifying them that their pizza had arrived. Consumers then had to go outside and pick up their meal by using a 4-digit code to open a heated compartment of the car to receive their pizza. During the pilot project, the car did have human drivers on stand-by in case there were any technical errors, but the windows were blacked out so customers could not interact with the driver or interfere with the experiment.

While the pilot seemed to be a success, it raised a lot of questions and concerns. Unlike regular delivery, autonomous pizza delivery forces the consumer to go outside and pick up their food. But what if the consumer was disabled or elderly? What if the weather was bad, would the consumer still want to go outside to pick up their delivery? Will these hurdles prevent consumers from ordering delivery in the future?

The answers to these questions (and many more) remain to be seen, however the story itself garnered a lot of attention from the industry and public alike. So much so, that it actually caused some rivalry in the pizza world. While they didn’t unroll their own automated delivery service, Pizza Hut unveiled their own pilot project with Toyota in 2018 where their delivery vehicle also doubled up as an automated pizza maker. The prototype could cook pizzas on the go, in a matter of six to seven minutes while on it’s way to the delivery destination.

While neither vehicle from these pilots have officially made it on the road just yet, both projects have been credited to showcasing the potential of automated car delivery. Just imagine, in a few years time we could see cars make pizzas on a whim and deliver them without any human assistance. What a time to be alive!

Close up of autonomous car and fleet of delivery robots

Only The Start Of Automated Delivery

Automated delivery isn’t something reserved for pizza. Self-driving cars are going to end up delivering a lot more than just food in the future. There are a number of companies conducting their own studies and pilot projects for automated deliveries on groceries and other services.

This is especially true for companies like Amazon, who have revolutionized the online buying world. The company alone delivered more than 5 billion packages to its Prime members in 2017, and are now looking into automated delivery to help cut those future costs in half. Because of these huge shifts and growing popularity of e-commerce, automated delivery is looking to be more promising investment especially for larger online companies that rely on delivery.

In the future, automated delivery is expected to turn into a 24/7 service. Self-driving vehicles will be able to make deliveries at all hours of the day, including overnight when there’s the least amount of traffic. With this increase of efficiency, companies will be able to cut their 2-4 delivery days into just a couple hours and in turn, improve customer satisfaction, especially for urgent orders.

Now the biggest hurdle on the minds of many engineers is actually getting the product to people’s front doors. With automated delivery, the product arrives on their street — but what happens when the customer isn’t home to pick it up from the delivery car? What if the customer is disabled or physically incapable of picking up their package? These are just some of the technicalities engineers and business people are currently toiling with. For now, many experts have proposed the use of drones or sidewalk robots to help make sure that deliveries make it to the front door. But only time will tell if that pans out.

When Will Self Driving Cars Become Available?

With developments constantly happening in the autonomous driving world — it only begs the question, when will self-driving cars be available to the public? When will automated delivery become the new normal?

The truth is, the future is near but it isn’t here yet. While it seems like new pilot projects are launching daily, there are still a couple years to go before we start seeing any major shifts in the market. For one, a lot of current legislation would need to be changed as automated cars not allowed on the road in a number of cities. Apart from that, engineers are still trying to tackle glitches and other technological weaknesses that will become prominent points of discussion including car hacking and other safety and security features. These are issues engineers are currently trying to find solutions for before sending cars to the market.

If self-driving cars and automated delivery is something you’re interested in, don’t worry — the future is looking bright! For those who are a bit more hesitant to accept this new technology, businesses are already looking at ways to win you over. Wherever you stand, there’s no question that autonomous vehicles are on the way, it’s just a matter of when. And when they do arrive, you can expect it to disrupt the way we live and shop — for the better or worse. Only time will tell which one that will be.