The Detroit Motor Show has been showing off some of the autonomous cars of the future… mostly prototype designs with simulated (or just plain nonexistent) sensors and computerized innards designed to move the vehicles around safely.  But amongst all the forward-thinking designs, one image had me laughing: A shot of a Ford Focus or similar vehicle, sporting a carrying shelf for pizzas.

Domino's pizza delivery testbed

This is Domino’s autonomous pizza delivery research vehicle, which they will use to test the idea of delivering pizzas without needing drivers.  And while I applaud the idea of testing any idea, however good, bad or silly, I’m appalled that they would do such testing with a standard-sized car!  Why do you need a full-sized car to deliver pizzas?

This is the epitome of inefficiency that so many people seem to be blind to: The desire to use a vehicle that is far more than you need for the job.  This is why people still buy SUVs, and use them to drive a single individual to work in the morning.  This is why people don’t get the incredible economy of smaller vehicles to save fuel and materials, take up less space on the roads and parking lots, and put less of a load strain on our roads.  And this is why so many people are afraid of the idea of autonomous cars—the idea that full-size, highly dangerous vehicles are tooling around and potentially risking our lives as they try to make sense of a constantly-shifting environment.

If you’re designing a vehicle to do driverless deliveries, you should be looking at those economies in scale, not just for cost-saving, but to help calm the public expecting to have to dodge driverless cars rushing around trying to deliver things in 30 minutes or less.

ElioAs it so happens, there are a wealth of significantly smaller vehicles that can make deliveries, save money doing it and bring calm to those who fear large autonomous vehicles.  A perfect example is the Elio from Michigan-based Elio Motors.  This 3-wheeled vehicle gets 84 miles a gallon and has a much smaller footprint than a standard car.  Elio intends their car to be a one-seat commuting car for less than $7,000, but there’s no reason why this vehicle couldn’t be a delivery vehicle.  Its test phase could include a driver at first, to make sure the vehicle was performing properly; then convert the driver’s cage to a storage and delivery system, and watch it go.

ArcimotoAnother such vehicle is Arcimoto’s electric trike for $12,000.  This particular vehicle is a 2-seater, but that provides much more space for cargo.  Maybe something larger than pizzas, such as postal delivery packages (imagine this with protective panels and a Fed-Ex logo on its side).  These vehicles would cost significantly less than full-size cars and trucks, so delivery companies could buy more of them, and the fleet of them could cover more ground faster than a single driver behind a huge truck.  They would also do less blocking of residential traffic when they deliver, since they are small enough to be driven around when they stop.

There are many such vehicles out there, many by startups hoping to break into the vehicle market with their smaller and more efficient designs.  And their smaller size can be packed with extra sensors and protective gear, not only to read the roads but to present less of a hazard if they do make a mistake and bump into unexpected obstacles along their route.  Even if they aren’t sporting extra padding, they’ll be a lot less of a hazard than a Ford Focus running into someone darting out between parked cars.

Mercedes Benz SprinterThis logic extends itself to larger bulk deliveries as well, using a larger number of smaller vehicles to do the delivery load of one man in a big panel truck.  This would probably put much of the public at-ease, considering how many of us have witnessed delivery trucks for Fed-Ex, UPS and the other carriers flying down residential roads at breakneck speeds in order to meet their delivery schedules.  An automated fleet of Mercedes Sprinters would be a lot easier on the public’s eyes, and much more calming compared to the sight of overstressed drivers racing by in their big trucks.

Here’s hoping common sense will prevail among delivery vehicle designers, and the many smaller vehicles vying for a foothold in the public’s perceptions will become prospects for sensibly-sized delivery vehicles.