Autonomous vehicle startups Beep and Navya are using four driverless shuttles to transport coronavirus tests around the Mayo Clinic campus in Jacksonville, Florida.
Because the routes are isolated from public traffic, the shuttles can be operated without a human safety driver, which limits human exposure to the lab samples. Though even the most advanced self-driving companies require much more testing before the technology can be scaled, this example from Beep and Navya highlights a near-term upside of autonomous vehicles: minimizing human-to-human contact.
As self-driving companies adapt to the social distancing guidance, several operational challenges have come to light. With the potential for future outbreaks on the horizon, self-driving companies will face two significant challenges:
- Ride-hailing services will need to ensure vehicles are cleaned between rides. Self-driving technology promises to make vehicles much more efficient, such that they can serve hundreds of customers a day. Without cleaning the vehicles between sessions, riders would still be at risk of contracting an illness, even if they are alone in the vehicle. Though not perfect solutions, giving riders disinfectant wipes or utilizing germ-resistant materials for car interiors could limit the risk of infection.
- Shared rides likewise present risks in a time of social distancing. Uber and Lyft suspended shared rides in response to the coronavirus, a move that still would have been necessary even with self-driving technology. Shared rides distribute costs between riders, making ride-hailing services more affordable. Vehicles designed specifically for self-driving applications could include cordoned-off rider seats to mitigate contact between passengers.
Furthermore, a rising fear of contact with strangers may help drive consumer willingness to adopt self-driving systems. Before the pandemic, consumers were still broadly concerned with the safety of self-driving systems, with many indicating they were hesitant to adopt the nascent technology: Only 25% of global consumers believed they would come to prefer self-driving vehicles to human-driven vehicles in the course of a year, compared with 64% who believed they would prefer self-driving vehicles in the next decade, according to a 2019 Capgemini survey.
However, as it pertains to ride-hailing and delivery services, consumers’ fear of coming in contact with strangers may eventually supersede their concerns about the safety of self-driving systems, thereby accelerating adoption.
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