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Can autonomous vehicles be the heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Published on 09 June 2020
Updated on 05 April 2024

Transportation as the growth engine of the economy has been one of the industries that has been hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has substantially impacted how we work, how we travel, and how we use technology. It has put an incredible strain on global supply chains, from medical supplies to household goods, as spikes in demand stress-test logistics infrastructures. 

We are now at a crossroads which represents a good opportunity to rethink our modes of transportation. Autonomous vehicles are already used to alleviate the strain on existing delivery services while addressing the demand and reducing the risk of exposure for citizens.

Sustainability in transportation starts with autonomous vehicles; this pandemic has been a game changer for autonomous vehicles in every aspect and has highlighted the significance of the deployment of autonomous vehicles further. 

For instance, the Mayo Clinic has teamed up with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and self-driving start-ups Beep and Navya for a project in Florida. In this project, autonomous shuttles began servicing a route between a drive-through testing site and a processing laboratory at the Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus on 30 March. Basically, autonomous vehicles are moving COVID-19 tests from a drive-through testing check-point, to a lab for analysis, all without a human on board.

Moreover, Starship Technologies has deployed a fleet of 20 autonomous on-demand vehicles in Fairfax, Virginia, and these vehicles will deliver food and groceries from a handful of restaurants and markets in and around the city’s downtown area. These vehicles have separate insulated areas for hot and cold items and are equipped with cameras, sensors, and other technology to help them glean traffic patterns, curb-cuts, and other information about the urban environment they find themselves in.

In California, the Department of Motor vehicles recently authorised Nuro R2 to test driverless delivery vehicles in some parts of the Bay Area. Nuro’s autonomous vehicle was originally designed for outdoor package delivery. However, the R2 is now supporting two medical facilities, one at the San Mateo Event Center, and the other at the Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento. It delivers linens and medical supplies, as it moves down aisles filled with patient cots during the pandemic.

Another autonomous vehicle start-up Kiwibot delivers safety and sanitary products to students in Berkeley and Denver. Cruise is now using its autonomous vehicles to deliver meals to local recipients and they have made more than 1200 contactless deliveries to low-income, senior citizens from the food bank, and 2500 meals from local restaurants to several organisations serving in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Although the use of autonomous vehicles for human transportation are still uncertain and controversial, as well as very lengthy in terms of the regulatory process, the use cases mentioned have proven the worth of autonomous vehicles for deliveries. It is clear that the technology is well advanced and very useful. Autonomous delivery vehicles have the potential to become part of our everyday lives in a post COVID-19 world.


About the author

Sebnem Tugce Pala is currently working in the hi-tech start-up AmpUp’s public policy team in San Francisco. She is also a researcher at the Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC) at UC Berkeley. Her research interests include micromobility, microtransit, shared mobility, autonomous vehicles, unmanned aircraft systems, urban air mobility, and transportation electrification, and she hopes to apply her public policy experience to the field of new and innovative mobility.

She can be reached at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sebnemtugcepala/

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