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June 17, 2019 12:00 PM, EDT

Domino’s Brings Self-Driving Pizza Delivery Pilot to Houston

Domino's Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

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Domino’s Pizza Inc. plans to test unmanned pizza delivery in Houston later this year.

The chain, known as a technology leader in the restaurant industry, is teaming with Nuro, a Bay Area robotics startup run by two former Google employees. To start, Domino’s will send food to customers from a single store in the Texas city using one of Nuro’s fully autonomous vehicles.

The test is scheduled to start late this year and could expand in 2020, according to the companies. Domino’s has more than 6,000 restaurants in the United States and, with the labor market tight, the company is experiencing a driver shortage, with as many as 10,000 open positions nationwide, according to Kevin Vasconi, the company’s chief information officer.

The Nuro partnership will help the chain determine if autonomous vehicles are a way for its restaurants to keep up with demand during busy times when drivers are in short supply, he said.

“Consumers are ready for this,” Vasconi said. “I have been surprised by the overall positive reaction people have had to an autonomous vehicle delivery experience.”

Domino's

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Domino’s is credited with popularizing delivery, something that began with pizza but now is commonplace across the entire restaurant industry, as customers increasingly opt for the convenience of eating at home.

Autonomous vehicles also are being embraced by grocers as food shopping slowly shifts online and traditional chains try to combat e-commerce giant Amazon.com. Kroger Co. has done a test with Nuro in Arizona and is using its autonomous driving technology in Houston.

Domino’s previously tested autonomous delivery vehicles in a partnership with Ford Motor Co. The pilot began in 2017 to see how customers would react to stepping out of their homes to fetch pizza from a locked warming chamber in the vehicle. That program has ended.

Pizza Hut, a chain that made its name with sit-down dining and now is trying to catch up with rivals on delivery, teamed with Toyota Motor Corp. last year to work toward driverless delivery.

Nuro was founded in 2016 by two former Google employees who spent years working on the technology giant’s autonomous vehicle project Waymo. Based in Mountain View, Calif., Nuro is developing a fleet of driverless vehicles specifically designed to carry things such as groceries and pizza.

“We see ourselves as fundamentally different from most players in the industry because we are focused exclusively on goods,” said Cosimo Leipold, Nuro’s head of strategy and partnerships. “That is the core to our business.”