Self-driving Cars Respond to COVID-19 by Supporting Essential Delivery Services
(Originally published on LinkedIn on May 4, 2020)
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As we find ourselves confronting the realities of a global pandemic, we are learning to grapple with the shutdown of our cities and what it means for critical services. As a result, we have been forced to take a deeper look at the role of technology and how existing applications can be applied to address new challenges. Tech companies are now at the epicenter of the COVID-19 response. For instance, 3D printers have been used by hospitals to address the lack of personal protective equipment in addition to components for respirators. Automakers such as Ford and GM have also partnered with companies like GE as well Ventec Life Systems to produce ventilators. Even FAANG companies have sought to put competition aside, increase cooperation, and have formalized partnerships to help us return to a sense of normalcy. (see ways in which China’s largest app developers have responded here).
Notably, the self-driving car industry has played an unexpected role in helping to address the crisis. The evolving social dynamics due to the coronavirus have forced us to alter how we interact with one another. In a world where shelter-in-place orders are the norm, and commuting is highly discouraged to stop the spread, self-driving car companies are demonstrating today what many initially sought to do tomorrow — that is providing a safe technological solution to improve access and quality of life for all. However, instead of better transportation alternatives, self-driving technology companies are contributing much needed access to food and other essential items, as well as supporting the healthcare supply chain by providing logistical support and other delivery services.
A Jacksonville Transportation Authority autonomous test vehicle designed by Beep (Source: Jacksonville Transportation Authority)
Self-Driving Technology in the COVID-19 World
Whether its supporting medical testing, transporting medical supplies, or food and goods distribution, self-driving technology is being deployed to meet multiple needs related to delivery. Here are a few examples of the recent use cases demonstrated by self-driving technology:
Beep has partnered with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and Navya to assist with transporting potentially contagious coronavirus testing samples for the Mayo Clinic in Florida. Pony A.I. announced it has partnered with Yamibuy, which specializes in Asian foods as well as health and beauty products to deliver groceries and packages in Irvine, California. Cruise has partnered with the SF-Marin Food Bank and SF New Deal to provide over 4,000 contactless deliveries of meals San Francisco. Even self-driving truck start up, TuSimple is providing is free delivery service for food banks in El Paso and Phoenix. Other autonomous vehicle companies such as Nuro are helping transport medical supplies to field hospitals in California, while Starship Technologies has deployed its fleet of robots in Fairfax, Virginia to assist restaurants with food deliveries.
A Pony.ai autonomous vehicle (Source: Pony.ai)
A Starship Technologies Vehicle (Source: Starship Technologies)
Could this be a turning point for public acceptance self-driving car technology?
Prior to COVID-19, it was reasonable to assume public acceptance of self-driving cars would increase as the industry sought to earn trust through education and engagement with the general public. However, self-driving technology companies — particularly those focused on passenger transport are demonstrating that profit seeking technology companies can adapt their businesses to provide solutions that may not have originally been contemplated. These “supplemental uses” make a compelling argument that as these companies launch commercial services, they will be able to quickly provide solutions to unanticipated issues should they arise.
There is no doubt that these companies are likely benefiting from the learnings, after all the data being collected is integral to any progress they will make. Nevertheless, what cannot be denied is that these delivery services are providing a safe alternative for those who may not be able to access them. This includes those who no longer have access to meals and goods due to shelter-in-place, and those who may be elderly or at high risk for the coronavirus, and even those who are sick. The industry is proving its ability to respond to the needs of today by providing critical delivery services while allowing people to remain safely quarantined — particularly in communities and among populations that they may not have engaged with before. Furthermore, with goods delivery steadily increasing due to consumer demand, leveraging driverless technology is a win-win. All of this could bode well for increasing public trust and ultimately acceptance as companies get closer to commercial deployment.
While these efforts are admirable and will not soon be forgotten by the thousands of people served by these delivery services, let us not forget that improving passenger transport was the impetus for many of these companies. After all, our transportation system is still broken. Improved mobility will still be needed maybe now more than ever in a post-COVID world. Perhaps now that the public has experienced just a glimpse of how the technology can be applied, the role of self-driving cars and the benefits they offer will be better understood by more people.