Before the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic came along and turned everyone’s lives upside-down, one of the most talked-about topics in technology was autonomous vehicles. There’s no denying driverless cars and vehicles are exciting prospects in the motoring world.
You might think that because the world is trying to contain the spread of COVID-19, autonomous vehicle technology isn’t something at the forefront of people’s minds. Yet, it might surprise you to know how useful they are in crises such as the coronavirus pandemic.
With those thoughts in mind, here are a few examples of how autonomous vehicles similar in size to electric golf carts have been useful during the COVID-19 crisis. And, how they can still be of use when life eventually returns to a normal state.
Delivering medical supplies
One fact about COVID-19 is that it doesn’t discriminate who it targets. It doesn’t matter whether people are from a specific background, live in a particular area, or even whether they live alone or in a house with other family members.
As you can imagine, more people are getting diagnosed with the COVID-19 disease each day around the world. And due to that fact, there’s increasing pressure to have the right medical supplies to hand at hospitals and medical facilities globally.
Putting aside the question of whether those supplies are readily available from distribution warehouses or not, the fact remains that people need to deliver them. Truck drivers, for example, are not immune to catching COVID-19.
As a result, they would have to self-quarantine at home if they get COVID-19 symptoms. And because driving a truck requires specialist skills and the right driving licence, the freight industry could very likely face a shortage of drivers to transport goods like medical supplies.
In China, a forward-thinking autonomous delivery vehicle startup named Neolix offered to step in and help. The Beijing-based company has seen a surge in orders of its microvans that are comparable in size to some sizeable electric golf carts.
Neolix’s vehicles have been tasked with delivering medical supplies to hospitals across China, including cities such as Wuhan, the COVID-19 epicentre in the country. The Neolix electric driverless delivery vehicles offer a plethora of benefits in times of crisis.
Arguably the most significant advantage is how they reduce physical contact with other people – one of the best ways to slow the spread of COVID-19. They’re also useful when there are staff shortages at logistics and freight companies.
In the United States, Nuro received a permit in California to operate autonomous vehicles on state roads. Nuro is only the second company in the state to obtain a permit for operating such vehicles.
The company’s co-founder, Dave Ferguson, said Nuro was already putting that permit to good use. It’s using its “R2” models to deliver much-needed medical supplies to temporary COVID-19 hospitals and facilities in Sacramento and San Mateo County.
At the eastern end of the United States, an autonomous shuttle service company named Beep is also doing its bit to help with the coronavirus relief effort. In April, Beep announced that it is transporting COVID-19 tests at the Mayo Clinic in Florida.
The company is offering the service in collaboration with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and another company, Navya – an autonomous mobility solutions manufacturer.
Disinfecting public roads
The transportation of essential medical supplies to hospitals and facilities isn’t the only practical way of using autonomous vehicles during the COVID-19 pandemic. Another use for vehicles the size of electric golf carts is the disinfection of public roads.
Many countries have taken the step of disinfecting well-used public roads (and the vehicles that drive on them) to help ease the spread of coronavirus throughout the nation. One country that has been a leader in such an initiative is China.
Neolix, the company that provided autonomous vehicles for medical supply deliveries, is also showing how they are useful at keeping major public roads disinfected. Some of their vehicles got adapted with automatic disinfection equipment.
Transporting meals and groceries
When autonomous vehicles the size of electric golf carts aren’t delivering medical supplies or cleaning up roads to help kerb the coronavirus crisis, they’re out delivering food and shopping to people’s homes.
Many parts of the world are under government-ordered lockdowns, and so people aren’t allowed to venture away from home unless for essential reasons. Food shopping is, of course, one such valid reason to leave your home.
However, the problem is that you’re at a higher risk of catching or spreading COVID-19 – even with social distancing measures in place. From a safety perspective, it would make sense if you could get your groceries delivered to you.
That’s a great idea, but the problem is most other people also have the same thoughts. What that results in is the inability to go online and order groceries for delivery. Supermarkets only have a limited amount of delivery vehicles and staff for such purposes.
To help resolve that problem, driverless vehicles are getting used to provide a home transportation service for meals and groceries. Many countries are actively taking advantage of that idea and to great success.
For instance, head over to the western part of the United States, specifically to San Francisco, and you’ll notice Cruise delivering food to food banks and vulnerable senior citizens at their homes.
In California, Pony.ai is delivering groceries to customers in Irvine thanks to a collaboration with Yamibuy and the City of Freemont. And in Texas and Arizona, TuSumple is providing a free food transport service for food banks.
Despite the chaos and misery that COVID-19 has brought to many people’s lives, one positive thing to come of it is how people are banding together to help each other out.
The use of technology, such as autonomous vehicles is also assisting to ease the strain on already-stretched transportation services. Plus, they limit the risk of people inadvertently transmitting the COVID-19 virus to others during their daily activities.