If you live in the downtown areas of Pittsburgh, Palo Alto, Miami or other AV hot spots, you’ve probably been missing the Ford Fusion Hybrids with the bulky lidar sensors in your neighborhoods. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many job cuts as well as work from home orders from the government, and this has forced big driverless car technology companies such as Argo AI, Waymo, Aurora, etc., to halt on-road testing of their vehicles and work remotely.
This would impact many automobile companies partnered with these firms that had plans to mass produce and release their fully autonomous vehicles by the end of 2021, including the Ford Motor Company, Volkswagen Group, BMW, etc. The only way to bring back the accelerated development and testing of these technologies is by realizing their current value in the consumer market, especially when humans need resources to be delivered to them without spreading the virus further.
This article will shed insight on some perks that autonomous vehicles provide in mitigating the widespread impact of this virus, as well as whether these advantages make us realize their value in everyday life.
Home Delivery Without a Human Delivery Worker
We’ve all tried delivery when in a rush or simply when we’re too lazy to go out and buy food or groceries. This used to be an occasional thing for the most of us; something we wouldn’t do every time we purchased an item because the delivery charge was an additional expense. But COVID-19 has changed our entire lifestyle dramatically, and now most of us order our groceries online or through shopping apps such as Instacart or Amazon, so that we can avoid having to physically go to the store. While this seems like a better alternative, it also puts millions of delivery workers at risk of contracting and spreading the virus, making the outbreak worse than it originally seemed.
Autonomous delivery vehicles are a potential solution to this issue, since they allow for driverless home delivery of items that customers have purchased online, limiting physical interactions with the items to two point-contact (store shopper and customer). Nuro, a leading self-driving vehicle startup in the U.S. founded by former Google engineers Jiajun Zhu and Dave Ferguson, recently became the first driverless car manufacturer to obtain permission from the Department of Transportation (DOT) to produce and put driverless cars into action for home delivery. The R2, Nuro’s second generation driverless car after the original R1, is a low-speed vehicle that can interpret and adapt to a wide variety of weather and road conditions, while not posing considerable risks for pedestrian safety. Its maximum speed is sealed at 25 mph with self-adjusting acceleration and braking control in response to traffic flow and obstacle detection.
Like most driverless cars, R2 does not possess a steering wheel, rear-view mirrors and actuator pedals, placing it in the exemption category for vehicle production according to the DOT’s Federal Motor Safety Standards (FMVSS). This is an exemption that is not easily approved by the DOT, with many automobile companies trying their luck at getting their mass driverless car production proposals approved without success, until Nuro recently hit the jackpot.
Although this exemption has only been approved “with regulatory certainty” as of now, due to the low speeds that R2 can travel, it has enabled Nuro to get more R2s out working in Houston, delivering customer orders from Walmart, Domino’s and Kroger. The R2 is a start to transitioning to a fully driverless delivery experience, which in our current state, is a great way to prevent the spread of the virus from exacerbating further.
Could Autonomous Vehicles Be Our New Mail Trucks?
Every week, thousands of mail workers across the U.S. hop into their mail trucks and drive to multiple neighborhoods and communities that they serve, in order to deliver mail to residents. Receiving mail in a timely manner is very important for the most of us, since we need to pay our bills for water, electricity, gas, etc., every month and most of these statements arrive by mail. During this pandemic, mail workers have been working long hours to get all of our mail delivered to us without delay. Through this process, they haven’t been able to take many days off to spend with their own families or rest at home if they get sick, making them even more vulnerable to catching the coronavirus.
Autonomous mail trucks are a solution that USPS has been considering since late 2017, and to fulfill this dream the Postal Service has partnered with the University of Michigan and TuSimple, a self-driving truck startup. The plans to put an autonomous mail truck to work have only been extended as test runs to a couple of cities across the U.S., such as Phoenix and Dallas, and about 10 rural routes in Michigan as of May 2019. Although these remain a viable solution to be used in conjunction with traditional mail delivery by mail workers, efforts to develop autonomous mail trucks has declined over the COVID-19 crisis due to other priorities that have sprung up.
Counter to this thought, introducing autonomous mail delivery vehicles during this time to assist mail workers (as originally planned by USPS) or operate independently with robotic assistance in at least a few areas that have already been tested and approved, would highly facilitate the mail delivery process and reduce the stress and workload of mail workers across the United States.
The latter option would allow mail to be delivered directly to customers, with robots inside the vehicles serving as mail workers that sort and place mail in each resident’s mailbox. Residents can pick up their mail directly from their mailboxes without needing to worry about social distancing, spreading the virus to the workers or, counteractively, getting the virus from them. Even if mail workers did accompany the autonomous mail trucks, their work would be halved in intensity, since they would only have to sort and place mail in each resident’s mailbox, without needing to worry anymore about physically driving to every neighborhood that they serve.
Shifting Supplies from One Location to Another on Pedestrian-Free Routes
We’ve long considered autonomous vehicles to be an option to use in factories, truck yards and other less congested routes, primarily to move inventory to different locations. This is a great use for AVs since it involves minimal, if any, contact with humans or pedestrians, so it doesn’t pose a high risk for safety.
The pandemic has raised a lot of new challenges to implementing this idea across the board, in terms of the inability to commit much time at all to these efforts at the current moment, as well as the difficulty in monitoring test vehicles within facilities with very few workers on site to overview the actual process.
Despite these challenges, Phantom Auto, an automotive safety solutions company based in California, recently announced their decision to deploy their new driverless trucks — which they call productivity vehicles — across their truck yards to load/unload inventory on their own, without needing a worker to drive the trucks. Phantom Auto calls these trucks “almost” autonomous in terms of their navigational capabilities, since they may still need a little input from remote workers to guide them to the right docking/undocking locations within the yard, but the workers do not have to be physically present on site or inside the vehicle to drive it over themselves.
This is possible due to new technology called HILT (Human in the Loop Technology), a telecommunication software advancement that allows telemonitoring, remote assistance and, in emergency scenarios, teledriving performed by a worker remotely. Performing these labor-intensive tasks autonomously during normal times would be a great relief on workload for workers employed at truck yards, but during this crisis, this is an absolutely essential step that more factories and truck yards should invest time and efforts on, in order to prevent the spread of the virus amongst their workers.
Mayo Clinic, an American non-profit organization and academic medical center, has also been working to get coronavirus tests and medical supplies delivered to hospitals on pedestrian-free routes in Jacksonville, FL, to prevent workers from getting exposed to the virus. The driverless vehicles being used to transport these supplies are autonomous shuttles from Beep, Mayo Clinic’s new corporate partner from early April of this year.
Currently, about four of these shuttles are working independently on different routes in the Jacksonville area, while being monitored by Beep, Mayo Clinic and the Jacksonville Transport Authority Officials, to ensure that the vehicles don’t steer off route. With these constraints and monitoring methods in place, autonomous vehicles can be deployed across a variety of platforms to perform simple, supply shifting tasks that human workers have been undertaking in addition to their primary responsibilities for years, during the crisis and post-pandemic.
With their day to day work and responsibilities increasing multifold during the pandemic, frontline workers have been doing a lot of overtime, not being able to spend time with their families during and further exposing themselves and their families to the virus, so that the majority of us can stay safe at home and still get our necessities delivered to us. It’s now time for technology to take over, and one possible solution to help ease their work is automating tasks that are laborious, such as grocery and mail delivery, supply shifting, etc.
Autonomous vehicles that have already been approved for deployment, or in the final stages of testing, can help with performing these tasks since they don’t require a driver. These vehicles can be supervised by a physically present or remote worker to ensure that they follow the right routes and operate at the appropriate speeds
A few firms have already started taking the initiative of deploying these vehicles to help prevent the spread of the virus amongst their workers and customers, and are witnesses to the overall simplification and ease of the automated process over the manual labor that they had originally employed. The shift to a more automated future that we had originally planned at the end of 2021 should start when we need it most, which is during this time of crisis. So, at this time, are we willing to make the change and invest more efforts in developing and testing autonomous vehicles to perform our everyday tasks?