Coronavirus Could Drive Us Faster Into a World of Autonomous Vehicles

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It’s impossible to start assessing the full fallout from the coronavirus, given that the world is still frantically grappling with the spread of the disease and what other precautionary measures need to be taken.

But one thing is already crystal clear: COVID-19 has certainly highlighted how technology can be used to help mitigate the virus and fear of it spreading. Whether it’s conference telecommuting to help with social distancing or the groundbreaking efforts being put into finding a cure, tech has played an important role in the world’s ongoing plight to combat and cope with coronavirus.

Even some of the efforts to clean and disinfect isolated areas in places like hospitals are now being handled by robots to prevent the spread of the COVID-19, as reported by IEE Spectrum. And smartphones have become one of our most essential tools to stay abreast of breaking news about the virus, or when needing to order food from one of the local restaurants now limited to pickups and delivery services to help prevent the spread of the virus.

It all raises the question: Could innovative mobility initiatives like a recent pilot project in China, which involved testing the capability of eVTOLs (electric takeoff and landing) vehicles to deliver medical supplies, drive greater interest in autonomous vehicles for emergency situations amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

A self-driving shuttle makes its way through the Brooklyn Navy Yard, as part of a demonstration by Optimus. (Photo: Getty Images)

Ready, or not?

Many of the transportation and mobility experts contacted by Ride said it’s too early to tell what, if any, benefit autonomous vehicles might yield in helping to deal with the recent global outbreak. As the spokesperson for one transportation research group contacted put it via email, “We are all in uncharted waters as the pandemic unfolds.”

However, Stephen Rice, a professor of Human Factors at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, believes that the COVID-19 outbreak might very well warrant taking a more serious look now at the benefits of autonomous vehicles during emergency situations.

“Right now, things are not as bad as we see in Italy. But we know we’re probably 10 or 12 days behind Italy,” says Rice. “If you are trying to bring in supplies into an infected area, you might not want to send human beings in there, so an automated truck bringing food and water and medical supplies is a better option.”

Already in motion

The eVTOL pilot project in China featured a two-seater autonomous taxi, developed by the Chinese-based tech company, EHang, traveling roughly 2.5 miles in the city of Hezhou and landing on top of a 25-story hospital located in the area, as reported by Inverse.

The United States military has already been exploring a number of pilotless vehicle projects that could potentially be deployed to help in emergency situations like the coronavirus epidemic. In fact, the U.S. Air Force has emerged as a key player in the autonomous air taxi sector, lending its years of expertise in high-tech search and rescue missions to companies preparing to launch their own eVTOL vehicles, as previously covered by Ride.

Rice, who studies the interaction of humans and automation, contends that autonomous vehicles could also prove to be a major asset in addressing the need for basic transportation, when faced with a major pandemic like coronavirus.

“If there is a shut down, there are going to be some people who still need to move around, and having bus transportation might be critical to their ability to transport themselves,” he says. “Particularly the elderly; they might not be able to drive themselves.”

The Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) recently had to cancel its public bus service due to drivers calling off work due to concerns they might catch the virus, as reported by the Detroit Free Press. Other infected areas around the world have been struggling with similar mobility issues during the global pandemic.

Stephen Rice of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University says autonomous vehicles could prove to be extremely beneficial in helping to transport patients during pandemics like COVID-19. (Photo: Getty Images)

Time will tell

The issue, says Rice, is that there are still a lot of questions looming about whether the infrastructure is in place to be able to safely operate autonomous vehicles. But the Embry-Riddle professor says a number of pressing factors could change those dynamics a lot sooner than many expect.

“If there is a complete national shutdown and there are no other cars on the road other than those people who are allowed to move about, like doctors and key supply workers…then the automated vehicles probably wouldn’t have as much trouble, because there wouldn’t be any traffic for them to have to deal with,” Rice contends.

The reality is that we really don’t know what kind of technology we might be required to rely on to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, which could drive officials to turn to a host of new innovations like autonomous vehicles, explains Rice.

“The longer that this goes on, the more opportunities we have to use these advanced technologies for our benefit,” he says.

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