Postmates, the on-demand delivery service that runs errands for you, is betting autonomous technologies can add an edge to its operations as it continues to brave fierce competition from rivals Grubhub, Amazon, and UberEats.

Since last year, the San Francisco-based company has been using robot rovers for short distance deliveries in the Washington, D.C., area. Essentially, if you want an item from a business that doesn't deliver -- say, a fruit smoothie from a local health-food eatery, or shaving cream from a neighborhood convenience store -- a six-wheeled rover (or a Postmates human courier) can deliver it for you.

Now, as announced Tuesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Postmates is partnering with Ford to explore the use of autonomous vehicles in making those deliveries. The companies told Inc. that they're planning to launch a pilot in a yet-to-be-defined location in the U.S., sometime in the first quarter of 2018.

"We're constantly evaluating and piloting new urban transportation models," says Vivek Patel, Postmates's vice president of business operations. "With this pilot, we're trying to understand what is the right way to design these vehicles for on-demand logistics, how they plug into our network and how are people reacting to them."

The first phase of the pilot program will still feature humans behind the wheel--it won't be completely driverless--but the cars will be outfitted with sensors to mimic autonomous cars. 

The plan is to simulate a driverless experience. This means that merchants are going to load up the goods in the car, and consumers will have to go outside their homes to pick up their orders.

It is unclear whether the drivers will be wearing the mock seat get-up Ford created for a previous test that studied how pedestrians and fellow drivers reacted to a driverless car. Credit: Ford.  

Ford says the new technology is appealing because it can potentially aid small businesses that don't have the resources to provide their own delivery services.  

"In the realm of goods delivery, we want to support small and medium-size businesses who may want to take advantage of delivery services but don't have the ability to tap into complex, expensive logistics systems," says Jim Farley, Ford's executive vice president and president of global markets, in a blog post.

Postmates says its robodelivery efforts have already facilitated more transactions for merchants by increasing the number of "hands" on the road and optimizing resources and routes. So far, the company adds, the rovers haven't taken any human jobs--there are about 150,000 active couriers, who make about $21 to $27 an hour. But using automated cars could help Postmates save on costs, at least for shorter runs. (It's worth noting that Postmates fired all its city managers and laid off all its community managers last year, in part to run a leaner operation.)

To be sure, Postmates is not just thinking about using automated deliveries for short runs--it is also exploring how it can help optimize couriers' routes. For instance, an autonomous vehicle could pick up multiple orders from nearby stores and head to a central drop-off location. That way, the courier could make multiple deliveries in a shorter amount of time.

And while its robodelivery service is still in a very early stage, Postmates says it is looking to expand its testing to different cities such as Austin, which could be launched as soon as this spring.

As for Ford, this is the third partnership it has announced related to autonomous technology. Last August, it teamed up with Domino's to roll out a pilot in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where it tested a very similar service to the one announced today. It also agreed to join Lyft's open platform, which will allow it to leverage the ridesharing network to offer autonomous rides to willing clients in the upcoming future.

The article has been updated to clarify the reasons why Postmates eliminated positions.

Published on: Jan 9, 2018