Autonomous vehicles could be crucial in responding to future pandemics

    Originally posted by Eitan Grosbard | March 26, 2020 | The Robot Report | Original Article

    The global COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented public health, economic, and logistical challenges for the world. As billions of people shelter in place in hope of vanquishing the novel coronavirus, they’re turning to technology to adapt to the new normal – from e-commerce deliveries to videoconferencing solutions.

    There’s a growing consensus that even if the outbreak ends in relatively short order, many of the changes it’s ushered in will not. Experts and thought leaders predict the pandemic marks a turning point that will hasten the digital revolution.

    It also marks a pivotal moment for autonomous vehicle (AV) technology. Although the pandemic has halted many self-driving pilot programs, the long-term impact of the crisis will accelerate AV innovation. AVs will prove especially useful during future emergencies and outbreaks like the current one. Here’s how.

    How autonomous vehicles can help

    On a small scale, AVs are already demonstrating their value in a time of crisis. In China, autonomous vans have been deployed to deliver food and medical supplies to hard-hit areas, sanitize streets, and compensate for labor shortages.

    In future outbreaks, we anticipate AVs will provide a useful means of transporting passengers to healthcare facilities, grocery stores, and pharmacies, while also maintaining sterilization and leveraging in-car technology to monitor passengers’ vital signs on the go.

    Among the most valuable use cases for AVs will be in supplementing labor shortages in transportation, food delivery, and additional industries. Amid mounting reports of drivers and delivery workers showing up to work sick as companies scramble to keep pace with skyrocketing delivery demand, AVs look increasingly attractive not only as a way of keeping the public healthy, but for addressing critical labor shortages.

    In the absence of widescale AV deployment, regulators have had to revisit rules designed to protect worker health and safety in a bid to keep supply chains moving. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration recently lifted rules limiting commercial truck drivers to 11 hours of driving time during a 14-hour work day – rules that had been instituted to reduce fatigue-induced highway accidents.

    With autonomous trucks and delivery vehicles, however, businesses can achieve more efficient service requiring fewer workers – boosting productivity and keeping businesses up and running during challenging economic times.

    Crucially, AVs can also help curb the spread of disease by enabling drop-offs and deliveries consistent with social distancing. For instance, Chinese autonomous vehicle platform Apollo has partnered with the start-up Neolix for food and medical supply deliveries in Beijing. While none of these use cases have been demonstrated at scale, they point to the potential benefits of AVs in times of crisis.

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