Corona pandemic points way to future AV use cases
Long regarded with suspicion by the general public, autonomous vehicles (AVs) could enjoy an uptick in approval as the coronavirus pandemic, and the highly contagious nature of the virus, highlight the various ways in which reducing human contact and boosting reliability in supply chains could be beneficial. The ways in which autonomous vehicle technology could be deployed in a health crisis are manifold—from reducing the strain on the healthcare community to delivering critical supplies of food or equipment.
Matt Arcaro, Research Manager on analyst firm IDC’s Internet of Things and mobility team, pointed out that a driverless big-rig—or fleet of big-rigs—would be able to deliver any number of supplies across a city, state, or country, and do so 24/7, without fatigue.
“That’s one less person out there risking their personal health or the health of others,” he said. “That fear from fatigue is also important in a crisis situation, because if anyone has that momentary lapse, you have an overwhelmed system being added to by another patient, which the healthcare community then has to deal with.”
Within the healthcare community itself, technologies like connected and autonomous ambulances could not only help protect health professionals and patients from risk of infection, but also free up human resource capital to where it is needed most, in hospitals and care centers.
However, simply having a robot ambulance isn’t enough, Arcaro explained; any vehicle of that nature should be tied into a larger smart infrastructure that can talk to the health care centers, highways, and hospitals around it.
“Driverless capability alone is a baseline function, but without the end-to-end functionality, it’s not the best-case scenario,” he said. “It’s important to know how many assets are available, and [how] they should be deployed. That requires deep integration, and it’s being able to do so in a way that allows them to be tech neutral, so all assets are able to get that intelligence. That’s something that doesn’t exist today.”
Proving their mettle in an emergency
Jérôme Rigaud is Chief Operating Officer at French autonomous mobility firm Navya, whose shuttles are currently transporting COVID-19 testing samples and medical supplies across the Mayo Clinic campus in Jacksonville, FL.
He explained that, in future medical emergencies, the company envisions deploying AVs to facilitate the safe movement of tests, medical supplies, patients, or even for use as mobile treatment or command centers for medical operations.
“The fluidity in which the vehicle can repurpose lends itself to a level of customization in such situations that many vehicles don’t have the overall capability to utilize,” he said, noting the hypotheticals are endless.
“Whether it’s delivering supplies to a quarantined area or serving as a mobile center for things like testing, much like we have seen in Jacksonville at Mayo Clinic, there’s no shortage of capabilities an autonomous shuttle can serve in these moments of need,” Rigaud noted.
In discussing the movement of people, he said he anticipates AVs providing a useful means of transporting passengers to healthcare facilities, while simultaneously being able to leverage in-vehicle technology to monitor passengers’ vital signs on-the-go.
“While operations like the one at Mayo Clinic are practical demonstrations of the capability autonomous shuttles can provide, it also highlights a very encouraging blueprint for what the technology could be if we as a society had invested fully in it before COVID-19,” he said. “It demonstrates exactly how far the capabilities of autonomous vehicles extend beyond being people movers. The industry can positively aid in a pandemic.”
In the case of the Mayo Clinic—where medical professionals can track the exact moment the shuttle would take on its route, and when to interact with the vehicle to retrieve the test once its doors open--it’s possible to see the efficiency of autonomous vehicles in similar crisis situations.
“Quite literally, seconds can be the difference in life and death,” Rigaud said. “I believe the pandemic will show people that, even in moments of crisis and when accessibility is lacking, autonomous vehicles can bridge the proverbial gap to solving a solution.”
A likely acceleration in AV investment
Frank Rinderkneckt, CEO of Rinspeed, a creative think tank and mobility lab for the automotive industry, agreed that autonomous vehicles are also ideal for situations where they are used in risk areas into which no humans should be allowed.
“This not only applies to the current situation, but also for situations where high radiation levels could be involved, for example,” he said. “As always, there is also a slight risk of transmission from surfaces, not only humans.”
He explained that all touch or human-less innovations are great in the current situation, which also applies to locker stations, which could be used to store medical supplies or protective equipment.
Beyond autonomous vehicles as individual units, Rinderkneckt, like IDC’s Arcaro, pointed out that the lessons learned from the crisis could also affect the way in which critical infrastructure is tied together, resulting in new methods of V2X (vehicle-to-everything) communications—say between an ambulance carrying patients and a network of hospitals with various treatment capabilities.
“Smart infrastructure goes hand-in-hand with the total connectivity of all elements concerned,” Rinderkneckt noted. “The better and the more seamless all communications function, the easier and more efficient it will be.”
Rigaud said that autonomous technology “across the proverbial board” is proving its worth in times like this, and the industry should see an increase in investment as a result.
“It’s still early in the evolution of this industry, but AVs have shown real promise in addressing some of the biggest challenges facing society amid public-health crises,” he said. “Once AVs achieve broader adoption, their small-scale benefits will play out on a larger stage—reducing risk for road accidents, maintaining healthy, robust supply chains, and monitoring people’s health.”
With auto sales plummeting and major OEMs approaching crisis mode as the pandemic rages on, Rinderkneckt also believes the situation could actually speed investment strategies focused on self-driving capabilities.
“I think that there will be certainly be an investment impact in the field of autonomous vehicle development,” he said. “But what we all do not know is how quickly will we forget COVID-19, how long will the impact last, and how deep will it be over time. What is for sure is that the world will never be the same again.”