The COVID-19 pandemic has been described as the worst global health crisis in a generation, and the ways various countries are attempting to slow the disease’s spread while still assuring access to food, medicines, and other necessities are wide-ranging. In China, rapid implementation of driverless delivery technologies has increased access to food and key medical supplies with less human-to-human contact. In the U.S., state and local governments are currently working to implement driverless delivery technologies to similar ends; however, they must work within the strictures of federal law. 

The pandemic has created a huge increase in demand for delivery services. As people around the world self-isolate and practice social distancing measures, suddenly, food, household items, and medical supplies need to be delivered to millions of homes. Medical facilities also continue to face logistical challenges in receiving needed supplies.

This increased demand has already strained the existing supply chain and delivery infrastructures of many medical providers. It also creates a considerable risk of exposure for delivery drivers and increases the potential for the spread of infection. This pressing risk of exposure, as well as the strain on existing delivery services, has the potential to be addressed by driverless delivery initiatives.

China, which has reported fewer new confirmed cases over the past few weeks, was quick to use driverless delivery technologies in its response to the pandemic. There, the government incentivized investments in driverless delivery to support the social distancing necessary to reduce spread of the virus. Following implementation of the incentives, Chinese driverless delivery company Neolix experienced a more than 100% increase in demand. The company now operates vehicles that sanitize the streets as they deliver key medical supplies to the Wuhan region. 

In the U.S., a combination of publicity over accidents involving autonomous vehicles and a lack of action at the federal level has hampered the widespread implementation of driverless delivery. The first attempts at passing federal autonomous mobility legislation came during the fall 2017 congressional session.

The U.S. House of Representatives bill, called the SELF DRIVE Act, created uniform design safety regulations and would have allowed for a greater number of annual “exemptions” from the FMVSSs (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards). It also provided that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) would create and enforce regulations, and states would continue to perform traditional functions, such as licensing requirements. 

Despite success in the House, the U.S. Senate’s complementary bill, the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act, failed. Lawmakers cited safety concerns, specifically that the bill permitted too many exemptions and lacked a transparent application process. 

In the fall of 2019, before the COVID-19 outbreak reached the U.S., the House began to consider the draft of a new autonomous vehicle bill. This represented an attempt to revive previous efforts at regulating autonomous mobility. However, the discussion draft did not address an expansion of NHTSA’s authority to offer exemptions. Lawmakers continue to grapple with numerous safety concerns, including cybersecurity, and the legislation has yet to move forward. 

As a result, although forty states currently have some form of autonomous vehicle legislation in place, there is still no federal autonomous vehicle law. While legislation has stalled on the federal level, states like California have stepped in to get autonomous vehicles on the road—even where they cannot be completely driverless. Under the current regime, FMVSSs generally do not allow driverless delivery vehicles to operate on public roadways—not even during a pandemic—unless NHTSA offers the manufacturer an exemption. However, NHTSA may only offer exemptions to 2500 vehicles per manufacturer per year.

In February 2020, NHTSA issued the first-ever such exemption, allowing a robotics company, Nuro, to operate its driverless grocery delivery vehicle on public roadways. The exemption allows Nuro to deploy low-speed electric delivery vehicles, which operate without mirrors or steering wheels. However, due to the limited number of exemptions available, Nuro’s initial operations have been limited to Texas. 

Nuro also planned to use its exemption in California. On December 16, 2019, California revised its regulations to allow for the testing and deployment of autonomous delivery vehicles weighing less than 10,001 lb on public roads with an approved permit. California began approving new applications on January 16, 2020, and on April 7, 2020, the California Department of Motor Vehicles granted Nuro a permit to begin testing on California’s public roads. However, due to stay-at-home orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nuro cannot immediately begin testing without drivers. The company is therefore planning to commence road tests with safety drivers as soon as possible. 

The logistical challenges COVID-19 has created for deliveries have sparked other innovations.

One such example is Toyota-backed Pony.ai, a Fremont, CA, startup. The company retooled its robotaxi fleet and teamed with Yamibuy, a company specializing in Asian food and home goods, to launch a new service on April 17, 2020, that brings contactless delivery to customers in the Irvine, CA, area. The contactless and autonomous deliveries will go directly to customers’ doorsteps, with Yamibuy automatically assigning orders from its platform to Pony.ai vehicles in Irvine. However due to existing federal regulations, a safety driver will need to be present at all times.

Kiwibot, another California-based tech startup, also started using its self-driving robots to deliver sanitary supplies, masks, hand sanitizer, and hygiene products in Berkeley, CA, and Denver a few weeks after the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. However, the Kiwibot is a small vehicle that can be kept off public roadways, operating on sidewalks.

In Florida, the Mayo Clinic recently partnered with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and the private sector to start using driverless shuttles to transport COVID-19 samples within the clinic campus. 

As demonstrated by these developments, autonomous vehicles could play a significant role in helping alleviate the strain on existing delivery services while helping reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19. In the U.S., unlike China, regulatory hurdles at both the state and federal level continue to hamper widespread use of driverless delivery initiatives.

However, companies offering essential services such as food and medical supplies may be able to use driverless fleets in places like Texas. They also may be able to utilize technologies that are not subject to the same federal motor vehicle regulations, like Kiwibot, which operates on sidewalks.

Similarly, opportunities may exist to partner with local authorities, as occurred in Florida between the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and private companies Beep and Navya.