Domino's Pizza UK & Ireland is set to test a high-tech delivery address locator system it hopes will reduce times, increase accuracy and pay for itself through reduced mistakes.

The yet-unnamed driver assistance unit will be housed in the body of an ordinary shoe and use global positioning satellite (GPS) technology to transmit audible driving directions to a headset worn by the delivery person.

According to Domino's representatives, in England in particular, finding addresses can be challenging given the blend of the country's historic residences with newly developed addresses.

"When you have a lot of names on (older) houses instead of numbers, a map isn't always helpful," said Ian Foxley, a two-store Domino's franchisee. Foxley also is Domino's UK & Ireland's former director of information technologies. "That doesn't amount to a lot of orders getting messed up, but it's enough to make it a point of interest for us and enough to make us consider something like this."

Similar directional assistance technology is used by the trucking industry. Using a combination of GPS and general packet radio system (GPRS, which cell phone networks use) technology, large shipping firms track their vehicles' whereabouts, monitor fuel usage, predict arrival times and provide on-road assistance to drivers.

Using similar technology, Navman, an Auckland, New Zealand-based firm, is developing the delivery assistance device for Domino's. According to John Whitehead, technical manager for Navman's UK office, retooling and perfecting the equipment for pizza delivery is only a matter of time.

"We're developing all that right now to Domino's specs," said Whitehead. "It will be a GPS receiver ... and mobile phone (technology) put into a shoe."

How it works

The device will work like so:

When a customer phones in an order, his address information is captured by the store's POS. Once the order is completed, the delivery driver will check the order out at the POS, and a transmitting unit in the store will send directions to the customer's address to the unit in his shoe.

As the driver leaves the store, the shoe will transmit detailed, audible directions to a wireless headset worn by the driver. If the driver makes a wrong turn, the unit immediately recalculates a new course and/or redirects the driver to the original course. With advances in traffic monitoring technology, Whitehead expects drivers will be able to receive messages about accidents or possible traffic jams -- a common problem in crowded London -- and then receive alternate routes from the directional unit.

Marc Halpern, Domino's UK & Ireland's director of information systems, said visual mapping and direction units are available for automobile delivery drivers (many operations in the UK use various types of motorbikes), but that Navman's testing has shown audible instructions are the safest and the most easily understood.

"We've asked them for an open type of headset that allows other sounds (such as traffic and pedestrians) to come through while allowing him to hear, 'Turn left or Turn right,'" Halpern said. "We want whatever we come up with to be the safest for the drivers and everyone around them."

The device also will transmit a driver's location back to the store in real time and on a map viewable on a POS screen. Should traffic slow a delivery and a customer calls about the whereabouts of his pizza, the tracking device will tell the manager the driver's location and calculate an estimated time of arrival.

Halpern said that same tracking information will be available to Domino's headquarters and allow them to monitor order, traffic and delivery times for each store. "It's not like we want to be Big Brother with this, but it allows us to see if a store is backed up, assess any problems ... and dispatch drivers from another store to help out if necessary."

Though delivery driver robberies aren't as common in the UK as in the U.S., Whitehead said that adding a safety feature to the driver's headset, such as a panic button, would be simple.

"If someone gets into trouble, that will relay their location back to headquarters," he said. "It's not been specified into the system, but there's no reason why it couldn't be added."

If the shoe fits

Domino's chose to integrate the technology into a shoe for portability sake and ease of use, Foxley said. The device is expected to add just a small amount of weight, yet be more comfortable than similar devices worn around the waist or shoulders. About the only sign the shoe is anything but ordinary, said Whitehead, will be a recharging port. But even that, he added, should disappear with the final model.

"We will probably go to AC induction later on since the final product will need to be waterproofed," said Whitehead. Such rechargers emit a magnetic field that creates a charge received by a wireless device's battery. As an AC device, it will require a wall outlet for power. "You can take the shoes off and put them near the charging point and charge them wirelessly."

Whitehead said it's impossible to know what the sci-fi shoes will cost, but he expects they'll have to be custom made. And while Foxley expects they won't be cheap either, he said cost isn't the main issue.

"This is all driven by the idea of cutting out mistakes and getting the delivery to the right customer at the right doorstep at the right point in time," he said. "If that keeps mistakes down, then I hope it will pay for itself."

Halpern said a few franchisees comprising about nine stores are "very gung-ho about trying this," though the company doesn't have an exact start date for the test.

Foxley said he's heard the test should begin three to six months from now, though he wishes it were sooner.

"I suppose I like things like these," the former IT director said. "We'll try anything we think will strengthen our operations."

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