Will the Driverless Movement Slow Due to Coronavirus?

In some ways, the slowing of the driverless movement is inevitable – since just about everything in our society is slowing (besides the purchasing of toilet paper and Purell); however, I think this is a nuanced question that needs a deeper dive. I’m going to look at this through four lenses:

  1. Driverless technology advancement: People may be surprised to know that the majority of the driverless technology development that happens occurs behind a desk. This means that the code writing, testing, and simulations can all still occur, as scheduled. If anything, this might even happen more quickly as engineers are able to work with minimal distractions.
  2. Driverless technology testing: Driverless testing does require engineers to sit “behind the wheel” and so this aspect of driverless technology advancement has slowed if not stopped altogether. As this article shows, these companies are practicing social distancing like everyone else and, sadly, that applies to engineers sitting in vehicles. While this will have an impact on the overall driverless technology development timeline, I do not expect this to have massive impacts to the overall industry progress.
  3. Driverless technology acceptance: As noted in an earlier blog post, driverless vehicles may seem like the panacea for mobility during this pandemic since they can transport people seemingly with no driver. Acceptance for the use of driverless vehicles for goods transport may increase (see example here); however, I don’t think much has changed with regards to driverless passenger transport.
  4. Driverless technology commercialization: I’d say this is a topic that is entirely independent of the Coronavirus pandemic and, frankly, wasn’t close to happening for most of the driverless technology companies. Companies like EasyMile and Nuro have their niche markets with commercialized products; however, most other companies are still striving for Level 5 (fully automated) vehicles, which means that their technology is far enough away to not yet have (or at least publicize) a commercial strategy.

In addition to all of these aspects of the driverless technology advancement, we also have to consider how this will impact the introduction of shared and electric driverless vehicles. It’s been promising to see states take a lead in advancing aggressive clean energy goals (specifically California and Colorado); however, the shared aspect could be significantly impacted, especially when we see the “death spiral” that transit agencies are currently involved in (see article here).

Do my industry friends have any other perspectives?

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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