By Dipankar Sahoo

Globally, we are experiencing unprecedented times with the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is a silver lining in every crisis—and in this crisis, could the silver lining be early adoption of autonomous vehicle (AV) technologies?

It is in AVs where we have seen some particularly innovative uses for such a nascent technology.

We are starting to see how the pandemic has triggered a more diverse range of uses for robots, drones, and artificial intelligence technologies in general. Applications that stand out are the use of drones to spray disinfectants across cities, supplying food and medical essentials. Besides repurposed drones, automated systems are in use in healthcare facilities, delivery services, manufacturing, telepresence, and distance learning, among many others. But it is in AVs where we have seen some particularly innovative uses for such a nascent technology.

While there has been increasing use of AVs in China (such as Baidu partnering with Neolix, using Level 4 autonomous delivery vehicles in Wuhan, and Danish company UVD Robots disinfecting Chinese hospitals) during this pandemic, the first use of AVs in the United States directly related to the coronavirus is demonstrated by the partnership between Jacksonville Transport Authority (JTA) in Florida and AV companies Beep and NAVYA. JTA used AVs to safely transport COVID-19 tests collected at a drive-through testing location at Mayo Clinic in Florida.

Indirect examples of the utility of AVs in the United States during the pandemic is in contactless food delivery, as demonstrated by Optimus Ride. The AV startup, along with its partners, has paused passenger operations and has instead pivoted toward meal delivery services in Fairfield, CA. They are also in discussions with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) and Massachusetts Port Authority (MassPort) to aid the city in providing mobility alternatives for medical workers and goods.

COVID-19 has quickly created significant demand and has put the existing supply chain and delivery infrastructures of many service providers such as shelters, hospitals, and senior care facilities etc. under tremendous amount of tension. But while multiple businesses are affected, AV companies are stepping up.

Although the majority of the AV companies are start-ups and the technologies are in their early stages, they are adopting rapidly to address the mobility related issues comprising of both passengers and goods. This will tremendously help in keeping the economy on the move while adhering to the new normal.

The focus needs to be not only on the current pandemic situation but also the post-pandemic scenario where there is staggered reopening of the economy. This provides an opportunistic window for AV innovators to fast track the R&D efforts. This indeed is the belief of autonomous startup driving company Voyage. According to Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron, the operations have halted but Voyage is moving forward with its technology and 100 percent remote work environment.

While shared mobility services face headwinds, both through and potentially in the post-pandemic times, transportation as a service can be truly a model that AVs can focus on.

The most important aspect of wide adoption of the AV technology is regulatory approval by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). There needs to be a regulatory framework in place. The AV companies must petition the regulators to make an exemption from the current vehicle standards. As an example, it was a three-year-long tedious process for Nuro to obtain driverless testing exemption for its R2 delivery vehicle from NHTSA.

According to the World Economic Forum, regulators should consider the advantages of agile, performance dependent technology frameworks for the technology. They should consider opportunities to streamline the approval process while strictly adhering to the safety standards. It’s a two-way process where the AV companies and public needs to provide their comment via AV 4.0 (Document released by Department of Transportation and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy titled “Ensuring American Leadership in Automated Vehicle Technologies”) to help regulators finalize the AV technology guidelines.

Clearly, AVs across the globe are significantly contributing towards recovery efforts during the pandemic. It is therefore important to make sure they are supported by funding sources to continue the R&D. However, investors in different parts of United States are warning of a potential dearth of funding in the transportation sector—particularly for AV start-ups—due to COVID-19. They advise the portfolio companies to take multiple measures such as focusing on the core product, reducing the financial needs, cutting the growth spending, and drawing existing credit lines, etc.

Federal stimulus funding will be needed to prevent slowdown in the years of progress.

Federal stimulus funding will be needed to prevent slowdown in the years of progress. To that end, the timing of the U.S. Department of Transportation grant solicitation totaling $4.93 million is appropriate. Part of its University Transportation Centers program, the grant aims to fund transportation progress in the following four areas: a) Highly automated transportation research, b) Communications technology and e-commerce effects on travel demand, c) Implications of accessible automated vehicles for disabled people, and d) Strategic implications of evolving public transit trends.

Most companies working on AV technologies have temporarily stopped their testing due to COVID-19. That opens window of demand for robotaxis and delivery robots such as Nuro’s R2 and those built by Starship Technologies. As with uptake of any new product, the scaling up will be a big challenge. However, Kiwibot and Neolix claim they can meet the challenge. Potentially, that will lead the way for other companies.

While Americans are less confident of AVs, particularly following fatal crashes in Arizona and California in 2018, the current times of social distancing might provide the opportunity to embrace the technology. The surge in demand of delivery robots can bridge the uncertainties in Americans’ mind and pave the way for a seamless adoption of AVs. The sliver lining is that the pandemic might provide the right impetus for the early adoption of AVs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not be shared by The Fuse.