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Brickell pizza lovers get an unexpected side order: a robot

Brickell resident Christian Perry grabbed the two medium pizzas — one cheese, one with peppers, onions and a little bacon — from the Domino’s delivery vehicle that arrived at the curb.

“Thank you!” Perry, 26, said — to the car.

“You got it!” the car replied.

As part of Ford’s ongoing experiment with self-driving cars in Miami, the automaker has partnered with Domino’s to test a basic American use case: pizza delivery.

Wednesday evening, the project team repeated a scenario that’s been ongoing for weeks now. Between 5 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Domino’s that serves as pizza maker for Brickell food hounds — at the eastern edge of Southwest Eighth Street — delivered two orders using a Ford Fusion Hybrid retrofitted as the driverless delivery car of the future.

Though the vehicle itself was not fully self-driving, its driver had instructions to operate and navigate as if the car were on autopilot. And it came with an iPad programmed to talk back to pizza fiends.

“At our core we’re still a delivery business,” Domino’s chief digital officer Dennis Maloney said. “Autonomous vehicles are a new technology, so we’re interested in anything that impacts vehicles.”

For the seven weeks the pizza tests have been running, the results have been almost universally positive.

During Wednesday's second bot delivery, 14-year-old Mark Snyder rushed down to witness his medium cheese and cinnamon bread order via bot-driven delivery to his apartment building near the Rickenbacker Causeway.

“I didn’t know it was going to come right in front of me, like right on point,” Snyder said. “It was really nice.”

Michael Thomas, Ford’s global user experience design chief, followed the delivery vehicle in a separate car — standard operating procedure for the Miami project. He noted that Snyder waved to the car the moment he saw it coming on the street — even though Snyder would have had no idea whether there was actually a driver inside.

“There’s just a ton of enthusiasm for it — people taking pics of the vehicle,” said Thomas, an anthropologist by training. “For [Perry, the first customer], you saw it brought a lot of joy.”

Both Perry and Snyder said they wouldn’t necessarily miss the presence of pizza delivery guys and gals. Which begs the question: Will delivery drivers become extinct?

Maloney said he believes drivers will continue to play a role — in part because self-driving cars can only make curbside drop-offs. Delivering to a highrise door will, for now, still require a human.

Ford said it will continue to try out self-driving pizza deliveries for about one more week. It has more Miami tests planned in the coming weeks and months, according to a spokesperson. Its next pilot program will be with Postmates, which delivers a wide variety of goods.

Miami continues to be an ideal spot for the tests, the Ford spokesperson said. The conditions are perfect — in all the best and worst ways.

“It’s lovely weather right now,” said Thomas, who works out of Ford’s sleet-bound headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford’s expensive self-driving sensors appreciate the lack of adverse weather conditions, he said.

At the same time, Miami presents a usefully challenging urban environment, one where parking can be scarce and traffic can be horrific. Perry’s delivery car pulled in just as another car was pulling out of a space in front of the building. If there had been no parking, the delivery car would have gone around the block for another try — leaving the hungry Perry waiting.

But Perry said that, given the usual behavior of Miami drivers, the driverless cars can’t come soon enough.

“They don’t need some of the people out here,” he said.

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