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News Article

Driverless Vehicles: Line of Defense Against Contagion

By Alejandro Salas | Tue, 04/07/2020 - 11:52

Governments across the world have called on citizens to stay at home in an effort to flatten the contagion curve and have a fighting chance against COVID-19. But there are many that cannot stay home. Doctors, nurses, groceries sales people, delivery drivers, public transportation operators, taxi drivers and Uber drivers, just to name a few, are all part of the essential activities that cannot stop even in the midst of a pandemic.

People involved in public transportation and delivery activities are at constant risk of infection and unfortunately, they are normally subject to the precautions that others take to not spread the virus. Meanwhile, those fighting against the pandemic have been forced to hide their profession to avoid being target of discrimination and violence when trying to get to the hospital or to their homes.

Beneath the healthcare urgencies that plague cities and countries, there is an unattended mobility problem that cannot be met in the short term. Some actions have been taken to minimize the risk of infection but they are not sufficient. Mexico City’s Metro system, for example, has closed 190 ticket offices and is evaluating the implementation of a more controlled entry system to reduce the number of people traveling and waiting for the train at the same time. Taxi and Uber drivers still operating are taking extra precautions using sanitizer, gloves and face masks while doing their rounds. Delivery platforms have created a contactless option so clients and delivery people do not have to make contact with each other. Still, the risk of infection lingers and the virus has found its way to more people.

But what if mobility did not involve anyone else besides the person that needed transportation? Or what if groceries could arrive to the client’s home by themselves? The need for autonomous systems has become evident now more than ever. Such developments will not be available everywhere in the short term, but now is the time for those involved in autonomous technology to prepare for what future contingencies may bring. However, it seems most major autonomous vehicles developers have grounded their fleets due to the pandemic and are now relying solely on simulations. Still, there are some that have made the most out of a bad situation.

One notable example of how technology could change our current situation comes from the US. In Florida, the Mayo Clinic is currently transporting COVID-19 tests in driverless shuttles developed by Navya and managed by Beep’s mobility platform. Navya’s SUV is loaded with a batch of tests and moves across the Mayo Clinic’s campus to where they need to be transported. “Our innovative team saw this as an opportunity to use technology to respond to this crisis in Northeast Florida and increase the safety of COVID-19 testing,” said Nathaniel Ford, CEO of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the shuttles are following routes that are fee of pedestrians, traffic and staff and the units are also being tailed by chase vehicles to ensure deliveries are completed safely. However, it is already a step forward in making deliveries safer and more efficient. “Using artificial intelligence enables us to protect staff from exposure to this contagious virus by using cutting-edge autonomous vehicle technology and frees up staff time that can be dedicated to direct treatment and care for patients,” stated Kent Thielen, CEO of Mayo Clinic in Florida.

China, however, has become an unexpected testing ground for autonomous mobility. With the normally-full streets now under strict lockdown, companies like Meituan have deployed fleets of autonomous vehicles to substitute delivery people. These efforts are powered by driverless delivery business like Neolix that have seen demand surge amid the pandemic. According to Bloomberg, before the outbreak, Neolix had only produced 125 driverless units since its manufacturing operations began in May and now the company has received orders for 200 vehicles in just two months from companies like Alibaba, Meituan and JD.Com.

“Demand has been surging since the virus outbreak and more importantly, people’s perception toward driverless delivery had a complete 180-degree shift. People realize that such vehicles can get things done when it is risky for a human being to do so,” said Neolix Founder Yu Enyuan in an interview with Bloomberg. Moreover, China is now offering incentives of up to 60 percent of the driverless vehicle’s value to foster their use. As a result, Neolix expects sales of 1,000 before the end of the year.

The data used in this article was sourced from:  
The Verge, Beep, Washington Post, Animal Político, Navya, Mayo Clinic, Bloomberg
Photo by:   falco in Pixabay
Alejandro Salas Alejandro Salas Senior Editorial Manager