By Alexander Buznego, Miami Market Manager, Ford Autonomous Vehicles, LLC
Saying goodbye to Argentina wasn’t easy for Romina Orozco-Encio and her family. When they arrived in the United States almost three decades ago, her parents had to quickly figure out how to make a life for their family. So they dipped into their history and opened a flower shop like Romina’s grandfather had in their native country.
While her parents worked hard to make that flower shop a success, Romina was studying to become a teacher. Her plans changed when her father spoke of selling the flower shop, and she has never looked back after taking over the family business. For almost 30 years, she and her family have steered Abbott Florist through Miami’s ever-shifting landscape, tackling the challenge of running a local business amidst a sea of large corporations, intense competition and evolving customer habits.
There are stories like this all over South Florida, where small business owners stand resilient in a changing environment. The Miami area is home to the most startup activity in the country, according to the Kauffman Foundation Index of Startup Activity, but the region is near the bottom in terms of scaling. So people are starting businesses, but they are having a tough time growing those businesses. One big reason? As more of the shopping experience moves online and favors delivery service, small businesses need access to convenient and affordable delivery services that will help them reach consumers who may never step foot in their stores.
Last summer, our team at Ford approached Abbott Florist along with a number of other local businesses to explore whether a delivery service enabled by self-driving vehicles could help businesses thrive in such a competitive environment. We wanted to understand everything from whether there is demand for a service like this to what kind of vehicle we’d have to use to serve the needs of diverse businesses. Working with Romina and five other Miami-based businesses — including other florists, dry cleaning services and a boutique pet care shop — we learned a lot. Most importantly, it was clear to our team that a convenient turnkey delivery service would provide great value.
To test out the opportunity, we first spent time with Romina and her fellow business owners to understand what we needed to build to ensure our self-driving delivery service could seamlessly integrate with their operations. We need to know whether they already had digital order-taking capability or whether we had to build it for them. For our first trial, we designed an easy-to-use app for shops to request a test vehicle when they needed to make a delivery. Using our app, they were able to make deliveries on demand for items that needed to be delivered right away, or they could schedule deliveries at a specific time. We used our routing technology to optimize the vehicle’s travel schedule and make sure it could effectively balance demand among the businesses.
We also took the opportunity to test different interior designs for our purpose-built self-driving vehicle planned to arrive in 2021. For this test program, we used a customized Ford Escape to handle the deliveries. The Escape’s cargo area was outfitted with a foam vase holder capable of securing four different floral arrangements, as well as with a clothes rack for items from the dry cleaners. Testing modifications like these gives us important early insight into how to make our delivery service most valuable to customers.
As with our previous business pilot programs, the vehicles we use are not equipped with self-driving technology yet. We simulate the experience with graphics and sensor attachments so we can gather insights on how people will really interact with a self-driving vehicles in the future. The development of our self-driving technology, led by Argo AI, continues independent from these business experience tests.
For Romina, the delivery service meant relief. The app notified her when the vehicle arrived at her shop and gave her time to load the cargo area, which safely held her floral arrangements in place even in Miami traffic. She was able to track her deliveries through the app and reliably let her customers know when to expect their flowers.
For a business like Romina’s, filling delivery requests is often a stressful process. Without a delivery van, she was usually left trying to find a delivery driver who could help — a complex task since some days she’d have more orders than others. A self-driving delivery service that she could tap into as needed brought an element of convenience to her business while ensuring her customers got their orders on time.
Beyond just handling customer orders, we found that a self-driving delivery service can bring other efficiencies for a small business. At Giralda Cleaners in Coral Gables, owners Roland and Lydia Losas found that using the Ford service between their storefronts and processing plant boosted productivity at their four locations. Their 22 employees were apprehensive about using a self-driving service, but soon came to love its convenience to the point that they kept asking about the availability of “el carro cybernético.” Instead of spending time driving back and forth to the plant, they were able to spend more time working with customers and performing other tasks at their storefronts.
Lydia told us she honestly didn’t expect the service to be as helpful as it was. Looking to the future, she and her husband are considering how access to self-driving vehicles would allow them to expand their business to include on-demand wash service for college students, something that’s difficult to do otherwise. Between coordinating current activities and dealing with maintenance fees, insurance and liability costs, this kind of growth is challenging without solutions like ours.
And that’s the point. Self-driving vehicles have the potential to remedy many of the issues facing local businesses owners, allowing them to focus on what really matters — running their business. We’re excited to be part of this important sector of our economy and our community. As we continue our testing, we will refine other aspects of our delivery service business model, the operations, the app, the vehicle and perhaps most importantly, the user experience. We’re working to build a service that’s accessible, reliable, sensitive to the needs of our local markets, and that helps our communities thrive. And when a third-generation florist calls our initial attempts at this kind of service “a delivery life-saver,” we know we’re on the right track.
After all, Romina has known flowers for all her life. That’s the service she provides to her customers and her community. She’s didn’t know about self-driving technology when we met her — and our goal is to make sure she never has to. All she has to know is that our service will be there to help as her family’s flower shop continues to thrive right here in Miami
How a Florist Is Helping Put Self-Driving Cars to Work for Small Businesses was originally published in Self-Driven on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.