Few industries have been immune to the impacts of the economic downturn and drastic decrease in mobility demand COVID-19 has brought on, and companies developing autonomous vehicles are not among them. Short-term responses to the pandemic have mirrored other industries: Testing has largely halted, now including the fully driverless Waymo services in Arizona, which are now halted, with staff working from home. Development has not completely stalled, as companies like Voyage have noted that important simulation work can still be done, but it would be unrealistic to believe the pace of progress hasn't been negatively impacted.
A global pandemic has forced many companies to consider how they can make a positive impact on relief efforts, ranging from Louis Vuitton making disinfectants to startups donating computing power to finding a cure and 3D printers making valuable parts for respirators or personal protective equipment (PPE). Autonomous vehicle developers have been no different; despite shutting down most testing, a few use cases are emerging where companies are using autonomous vehicles in response to the pandemic.
- Neolix, a Chinese driverless delivery startup, has noted that orders for its small road-going autonomous vehicles have spiked since the outbreak. The company's vehicles have been used in several ways: delivering food to healthcare workers infected with the virus, moving medical supplies, and disinfecting public places with modified vehicles.
Neolix using vehicles to disinfect public spaces (Source: Neolix)
- Navya shuttles are being used to transport medical supplies in the U.S. through a partnership between Beep and the Jacksonville Transit Authority in Florida. Although the four vehicles are supervised, with drivers following in separate vehicles, the COVID-19 tests being moved from a testing site to a local clinic make the journey with no humans in the vehicle.
- Optimus Ride's autonomous shuttle operations in a retirement community have been halted, but the vehicles are being repurposed to deliver meals and packages to residents. However, the vehicles are operated manually, as they cannot provide deliveries to doorsteps, a broader challenge with autonomous last-mile delivery we noted in our last-mile delivery research.
Given that these pilots are mostly supervised, and the scale of operations is small, autonomous vehicles should not be considered a solution today. Even smaller autonomous vehicles, which face lower regulatory barriers and can more easily be deployed, aren't able to respond to the outbreak. Nuro's R2 vehicle was just granted a federal approval to operate on roads and a state approval from California to operate an autonomous delivery service. Despite these approvals, due to shelter-in-place orders, the company cannot launch its service at this time.
Nuro's R2 (Source: Nuro)
However, most of the questions we get from companies aren't focused on understanding short-term impacts but instead on how the outbreak impacts the long-term outlook for autonomous vehicles. In short, it's too early to say conclusively what the long-term impacts from COVID-19 will be, but in these early stages, it appears this pandemic will accelerate autonomous vehicle deployments. Use cases like the ones outlined above will go a long way toward demonstrating the upsides of autonomous vehicles, an important task given the broad concern and skepticism the public generally shows toward autonomous vehicles. With greater public acceptance and demonstrated use cases of autonomous vehicles being used to mitigate outbreaks, look for cities to open up streets for more testing opportunities and baking autonomous vehicles into response plans, as these developments could indicate that adoption timelines will accelerate.