The COVID-19 pandemic has put an incredible strain on global supply chains. Spikes in demand are stress-testing logistics infrastructures – putting supermarkets and retailers under immense pressure to keep up and ensure the availability of products including medical supplies and household goods. Yet the new self-isolating communities have created a need for ‘last mile delivery’ ensuring that these supplies reach consumers.
One potential solution to facilitating this last link of the supply chain is to use Autonomous vehicles (AVs). These robotic machines operate without humans and therefore avoid the risk of transmission keeping both the consumer and the worker, safe. Using AVs to deliver products and provisions to communities in lockdown could help alleviate the strain on existing delivery services and provide an alternative way for vulnerable people to access the products they need.
Before the coronavirus pandemic began, the sentiment towards AVs was not overly positive. There was a fear the technology was pervasive and as a result, a March 2020 AAA survey found that only 12 percent of respondents trusted riding in a self-driving car, whilst a report by Deloitte that surveyed 35,000 drivers from 20 different countries found that almost 50 percent worried that the cars were unsafe. However, researchers have reported the beginning of a shift in sentiment towards AVs, brought about by the societal effect of the coronavirus crisis.
In essence, COVID-19 has changed much about how communities view social interaction. It has heightened a sensitivity to risk in social situations and therefore opened the door to acceptance of AVs as a ‘safe’ way of executing logistics during a time with significantly reduced mobility. As Anuja Sonalker, CEO of Steer Tech, a self-parking tech company explains: “There has been a distinct warming up to human-less, contactless technology because essentially, humans are biohazards, machines are not.”
Indeed, AV simulation software company Ansys‘ CTO Prith Banerjee believes; “The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the need for automation in every industry, including autonomous driving.” He explains that; “Autonomous vehicles (including cars, drones, robots) can certainly have many positive applications during the pandemic, including delivering food, delivering medicine, transporting people while maintaining social distance”.
Before COVID-19 emerged, Allied Market Research valued the global autonomous vehicle market size at $54.23bn, and projected growth to reach $556.67bn by 2026, registering a CAGR of 39.47% between 2019 to 2026. But if the experts are correct and the sentiment towards AVs evolves to embrace the technology, the market could emerge as one of the only winners from the crisis.
As evidence of this shift, in some cases AVs are already being put to work. For example, in China, Neolix uses AVs to deliver food and groceries, after the management team spotted the potential need for human-free delivery services during the crisis, while Optimus Ride, an autonomous shuttle company based in the US paused its self-driving commute programs to instead provide food deliveries to seniors who could no longer congregate at meal times.
Other AV ventures able to offer support at this time include a partnership between the Mayo Clinic, Beep and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) that is collaborating to deploy autonomous shuttles that transport medical equipment and COVID-19 tests collected at the hospital’s drive-thru testing site. The hope is that the AVs will expedite the delivery of much-needed supplies while reducing the risk of human exposure to the virus. Also in the U.S, KiwiBot’s autonomous delivery robots have begun delivering sanitary supplies, masks, antibacterial gels and hygiene products for the communities of Berkeley and Denver.
“Delivery robots add convenience and perceived safety without having to trust them with your life,” explains Amit Nisenbaum, CEO of Tactile Mobility, a provider of data and sensing technologies that allow autonomous vehicles to detect road bumps, curvatures, and hazards. “People understand that AVs will reduce the spread of infection by allowing for social distancing” he continued.
However, there are a number of regulatory hurdles in place that are preventing more AV companies from joining the frontline fight and being deployed at scale. For instance, to be allowed to operate in public during the crisis, AV developers must petition the regulator to make an exemption from existing vehicle safety standards, such as the requirement for human-operable controls and mirrors. In some cases, these exemptions are being granted. For instance, Nuro, a California-based builder of AV delivery vehicles was granted a fixed-term exemption to allow the company to operate whilst, Neolix -mentioned previously – has also been granted permission to operate its AVs to transport medical supplies and food to areas of the country hit hardest by COVID-19.
However, if more AVs are to be put into circulation to assist the effort to support vulnerable citizens and take the pressure off the logistics industry, a less arduous regulatory process that considers the merits of agile, performance-based technology frameworks for automated vehicles, must be considered. One example of a regulatory framework for AVs that allows flexibility, yet maintains high safety standards that could be mimicked, is the policy co-developed by the Forum for Drones in Rwanda. This system enables life-saving blood to be delivered to remote communities by allowing airspace access for unmanned aircraft on a mission-specific basis allowing rapid approval for deployment and saving lives as a result.
Although AVs have suffered from issues of mistrust in the past, these challenging times present an opportunity for the industry to show how the technology can be positively deployed to deliver vital medical supplies and products to hospitals or vulnerable citizens that would otherwise be left to suffer from the damage COVID-19 has inflicted on supply chains. If regulators around the world were able to support AV companies to put their fleets of vehicles to good use in this crisis, it would help people stay home, slow the spread of the virus, and save lives.