In recent months, the travel industry has seen itself under the shadow of the pandemic. All around the world, urban mobility has almost frozen due to COVID-19: from private car usage, to public transport, ride-hailing, and in some cases, even micro-mobility (shared bikes, scooters, etc).
As we see significant measures being deployed by cities and transportation providers to help citizens in lock-down and medical institutions, many technological innovations are flourishing to support these efforts. Interestingly, such unprecedented conditions have created the terrain for discussion around one specific technology: autonomous vehicles.
Why Autonomous Vehicles?
With social distancing and safety measures being applied in many countries, many transportation methods are suspended or being simply avoided by users. Delivery services that continue to operate are having to adapt to meet the restrictions. With the core issue being human contact, autonomous vehicles are seeing their popularity curve jumping - at least, for delivery purposes.
This technology has existed for some time now, but the fact that it can provide “contactless” solutions to help relevant populations by delivering medical supplies and groceries, is hasting its deployment. In addition, with the streets emptier than usual, the risks of accidents are naturally reduced.
How Are Autonomous Vehicles Being Used?
Well, as we said, mainly to transport groceries and medical supplies.
Autonomous shuttles are already used in the U.S. According to sources, the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, uses four self-driving NAVYA shuttles to move medical supplies and COVID-19 test samples from a drive-through testing site to a nearby laboratory. Another example of autonomous shuttle usage is provided by Optimus Ride. The company had to pause its self-driving commute programs in some U.S cities, but its shuttles were immediately shifted to make goods and food deliveries to seniors in a Northern California retirement community.
In China, Neolix is using its driverless vans to transport medical packages and food to areas affected by the virus, and has reported an increase in orders since the coronavirus outbreak. More than that, some are even used to disinfect the streets.
Autonomous mini-vehicles and robots are also seeing their activity boosted. The Guardian reports that in the U.K, Starship Technologies is using its miniature autonomous vehicles to deliver food to almost 200,000 residents in the city of Milton Keynes. In California, the Department of Motor vehicles recently authorized Nuro to test driverless delivery vehicles in some parts of the Bay Area. These futuristic little vehicles (Nuro R2) that transport goods only, are allowed locally to move food, medical supplies, and groceries. There are other interesting cases like Kiwibot, that delivers safety and sanitary products to students in Berkeley and Denver.
These cases demonstrate a growing interest in autonomous vehicle technology for delivery purposes, but the picture is more complicated than it seems.
The Challenge for Autonomous Vehicles: People
The idea of vehicles without drivers may seem attractive in times that people are avoiding direct human interaction. In reality however, transporting people is considerably more challenging than transporting goods. Waymo, the self-driving division of Alphabet, suspended its activities because of the pandemic. Other autonomous vehicle companies did the same or at least partially paused their operations. There are many possible reasons why: the sanitary issues (no automatic cleaning of the vehicles), ride-sharing is obviously not on the table, and the lack of workers (as safety drivers) is making things even more difficult. Of course, some of these issues can be solved and it doesn’t mean that autonomous taxis won’t succeed, but some time will be needed until solutions are found.
The autonomous vehicle industry is promising. The technology is well advanced, and many use cases have been proven to be working. The current situation seems to encourage the use of these vehicles for deliveries but shows less positive signs in regards to their use for human transportation. On top of that, the economic crisis might also have an unpredictable impact on this industry. That said, autonomous vehicles, with the right adaptations, can be a true game-changer regardless of the pandemic. Will we see the rise of the autonomous vehicles after the COVID-19 outbreak? Time will tell.