Autonomous vehicles could be crucial in responding to future pandemics

autonomous vehicles covid-19

Neolix’s autonomous vehicles delivering food and medical supply in Beijing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented public health, economic, and logistical challenges for the world. As billions of people shelter in place in hope of vanquishing the novel coronavirus, they’re turning to technology to adapt to the new normal – from e-commerce deliveries to videoconferencing solutions.

There’s a growing consensus that even if the outbreak ends in relatively short order, many of the changes it’s ushered in will not. Experts and thought leaders predict the pandemic marks a turning point that will hasten the digital revolution.

It also marks a pivotal moment for autonomous vehicle (AV) technology. Although the pandemic has halted many self-driving pilot programs, the long-term impact of the crisis will accelerate AV innovation. AVs will prove especially useful during future emergencies and outbreaks like the current one. Here’s how.

How autonomous vehicles can help

On a small scale, AVs are already demonstrating their value in a time of crisis. In China, autonomous vans have been deployed to deliver food and medical supplies to hard-hit areas, sanitize streets, and compensate for labor shortages.

In future outbreaks, we anticipate AVs will provide a useful means of transporting passengers to healthcare facilities, grocery stores, and pharmacies, while also maintaining sterilization and leveraging in-car technology to monitor passengers’ vital signs on the go.

Among the most valuable use cases for AVs will be in supplementing labor shortages in transportation, food delivery, and additional industries. Amid mounting reports of drivers and delivery workers showing up to work sick as companies scramble to keep pace with skyrocketing delivery demand, AVs look increasingly attractive not only as a way of keeping the public healthy, but for addressing critical labor shortages.

In the absence of widescale AV deployment, regulators have had to revisit rules designed to protect worker health and safety in a bid to keep supply chains moving. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration recently lifted rules limiting commercial truck drivers to 11 hours of driving time during a 14-hour work day – rules that had been instituted to reduce fatigue-induced highway accidents.

With autonomous trucks and delivery vehicles, however, businesses can achieve more efficient service requiring fewer workers – boosting productivity and keeping businesses up and running during challenging economic times.

Crucially, AVs can also help curb the spread of disease by enabling drop-offs and deliveries consistent with social distancing. For instance, Chinese autonomous vehicle platform Apollo has partnered with the start-up Neolix for food and medical supply deliveries in Beijing. While none of these use cases have been demonstrated at scale, they point to the potential benefits of AVs in times of crisis.

Waymo COVID-19 autonomous vehicles

Many self-driving pilot programs, including Waymo’s, have suspended operations to slow the spread of COVID-19. | Credit: Waymo

Healthcare centers on wheels

When the next pandemic or public health emergency strikes, AVs can play an even greater role in the response. Not only can traveling in an AV reduce the risk of disease transmission via human-to-human contact, but start-ups are currently developing solutions for monitoring vehicle cleanliness and air quality; measuring and recognizing airborne contaminants from ill passengers may not be far off.

Indeed, AVs are on the road to serving as healthcare centers on wheels. Take the Israel-based start-up Vayyar, which has developed technology that enables passenger breathing monitoring, e-calling with vital sign recording, and much more. Industry experts to a wide array of potential health benefits, including the use of biometric sensors that will store vital data in the clouds, electrodes built into passenger seats, and more. These features will not only enable treatment for acute illnesses, but can also help in earlier detection of disease.

It’s still early days, but AVs have shown real promise in addressing some of the biggest challenges confronting society amid public health crises. Once AVs achieve wider acceptance and adoption, their small-scale benefits will play out on a larger stage – reducing road accidents, maintaining supply chains, and monitoring people’s health.

There’s no small amount of irony in the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has put the pause on AV pilots – but over time, the world will see what citizens in countries like China are already seeing firsthand: In an outbreak, AVs are a critical part of the solution.

Eitan Grosbard

About the Author

Eitan Grosbard is Vice President of Business Development at Tactile Mobility, an Israel-based tactile sensing technology and data provider that enables actionable insights for autonomous vehicles, municipalities, insurers and fleet managers.

Tactile Mobility’s technology collects real-time data generated from car sensors and turns it into actionable insights such as road quality, tire grip, vehicle weight and other vehicle- and road-specific models.

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