Will Driverless Vehicles Help the Coronavirus Pandemic?

It’s fun to think that driverless vehicles could be the magical answer to this global pandemic…though that’s really not the case – at least for passenger transport. While public transit vehicles are seen as germ-carrying enclosures, driverless vehicles, in theory, will provide a mobility solution that can move a passenger – with no driver! Unfortunately, we’re not there yet; the majority of these operations still have 1-2 safety operators in one (germ carrying!) vehicle. For that reason, pretty much every driverless technology company has taken their vehicles off the road – whether for testing or actual deployments (see link here).

Unfortunately, the safest way to avoid the Coronavirus and get around today is in your private vehicle. This has had the potential to cause huge increases in single occupancy vehicle usage, congestion, and greenhouse gas emissions; however, there’s nowhere to go!  Since most places have “shelter-in-place” orders, people are not driving, which is actually having surprisingly positive environmental benefits. As outlined in this article, “the outbreak has, at least in part, contributed to a noticeable drop in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.” We can’t attribute that to driverless vehicles, but it does show the benefits of reducing people movements (amongst other activities).

The opportunity that driverless vehicles present today is for goods movement. Per usual, this aspect of driverless mobility is often over-shadowed by the much sexier-sounding driverless passenger transport. Multiple driverless technology companies have been helping Chinese communities – delivering everything from grocery delivery to medical supplies (see example article here). If anything, empty streets and a lack of labor have accelerated the adoption and acceptance of this technology.

The technology still requires significant development, but it’s nice to know that the Coronavirus could have some benefit. Let’s all remember that driverless vehicles aren’t ready to solve all of the world’s problems! Any ideas for other potential driverless applications today?

About Lauren Isaac

Lauren Isaac is the Director of Business Initiatives for the North American operation of EasyMile. Easymile provides electric, driverless shuttles that are designed to cover short distances in multi-use environments. Prior to working at EasyMile, Lauren worked at WSP where she was involved in various projects involving advanced technologies that can improve mobility in cities. Lauren wrote a guide titled “Driving Towards Driverless: A Guide for Government Agencies” regarding how local and regional governments should respond to autonomous vehicles in the short, medium, and long term. In addition, Lauren maintains the blog, “Driving Towards Driverless”, and has presented on this topic at more than 75 industry conferences. She recently did a TEDx Talk, and has been published in Forbes and the Chicago Tribune among other publications.
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