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Covid-19’s Unexpected Transportation Impact

Autonomy in transportation has been a holy grail for a number of industries. Businesses like Uber, Lyft, Waymo, Tesla, and others have dreamed of a day when they could unleash robot-taxis on the streets. Logistics companies like DB Schenker, together with Einride, are striving to put driverless trucks on the road. Autonomous robots that bring packages to your door are being developed by companies like Kiwi and Berge. The current pandemic may impact the pursuit of autonomy in transportation in surprising ways. [1-4]

There are worrying signs for companies that are looking to leverage autonomy in the transportation of people. Sam Abuelsamid points to a survey recently conducted by IBM Institute for Business Value that shows just how drastically people’s expectations have changed due to Covid-19.[1] For instance, 47% of the 14,000 people interviewed said they would use a private car exclusively in a post-Covid-19 world. This is not only worrying environmentally but also economically for companies like Uber and Lyft and their thousands of drivers. These companies are already struggling with respect to their business model.[4] Now they may have to pivot towards an area that is already seeing growth from Covid-19 worries: online shopping and goods deliveries.[1-3]  

 

Personal comments

There is no doubt that autonomous vehicles hold a lot of promise. They are also ridiculously difficult to achieve. Covid-19’s impact on the hopes of the transportation industry appears, at the least, to be shifting the focus toward goods delivery instead of moving people. This may be a blessing in disguise. Safety and ethics considerations for small delivery robots are easier to address than heavy, fast-moving, full-sized vehicles. The technical challenges, however, are similar. This means it might be quicker to develop full autonomy on the small scale of a delivery robot and then apply those solutions to larger vehicles in the future.  

 

Written by Joshua Bronson, RISE.

 

Sources

1. 2020-05-11. Self-driving Ubers of the future will deliver stuff not people

2. 2020-04-07. Einride’s autonomous pod trucks now schlepping around Sweden

3. 2020-05-06. Delivery robots can save jobs and lives

4. 2020-05-11. California sues Uber Lyft over misclassifying drivers as contractors instead of employees