If you live in the downtown areas of Pittsburgh, Palo Alto, Miami, or other autonomous vehicle hotspots, you may have missed the Ford Fusion Hybrids with the bulky lidar sensors on their roofs. The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in many job cuts, as well as work-from-home orders, forcing the big companies developing self-driving vehicles such as Argo AI, Waymo, and Aurora to momentarily halt on-road testing.
This pause also affected the automotive manufacturers that have partnered with these firms and planned to mass-produce and release autonomous vehicles by the end of 2021, including Ford, Volkswagen, and BMW, to name just a few. While investment and testing have resumed, self-driving cars will have to prove their value in the consumer market, especially when humans need resources to be delivered to them without spreading the virus further. Let’s examine some benefits that self-driving vehicles can provide during the pandemic, as well as whether we can realize these advantages in everyday life.
Home delivery without a human
In the past several months, door-to-door delivery went from something we do when we are in a rush or are feeling too lazy to buy groceries or cook to a regular occurrence. Consumers used to hold back because of delivery charges, but the novel coronavirus has dramatically changed lifestyles and priorities. Now, many people order groceries online or through shopping apps like Instacart or Amazon so they can avoid having to shop in a physical store.
While this seems like a better alternative, it also puts millions of delivery workers at risk of contracting and spreading the virus. Autonomous delivery vehicles are a potential solution. Nuro, founded by former Google engineers Jiajun Zhu and Dave Ferguson, recently obtained permission from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to produce and put driverless cars into action for home delivery.
The R2, Nuro’s second-generation self-driving vehicle after its original R1, can interpret and adapt to a wide variety of weather and road conditions, while minimizing risks for pedestrian safety. Its maximum speed is set at 25 mph, with self-adjusting acceleration and braking control in response to traffic flow and obstacle detection.
Like other driverless cars, R2 does not possess a steering wheel, rear-view mirrors, or actuator pedals, placing it in the exemption category for vehicle production according to the DOT’s Federal Motor Safety Standards (FMVSS). This is an exemption that is not easily obtained.
Although this exemption has only been approved “with regulatory certainty” as of now because of the R2’s low speed, it has enabled Nuro to get more R2s delivering customer orders from Walmart, Domino’s, and Kroger in Houston. The R2 is a start to transitioning to a fully driverless delivery experience, which in our current state, is a great way to prevent the spread of the virus from exacerbating further.
Could self-driving vehicles be the next mail trucks?
Every week, thousands of postal workers across the country hop into their trucks and drive to multiple communities to deliver mail to residents. From paychecks and bills to ballots, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has been an essential service, and its workers have been working long hours during the pandemic.
The USPS has been considering autonomous mail trucks since late 2017, and it has partnered with the University of Michigan and TuSimple, a self-driving truck startup. So far, the partners have made test runs in a few cities, such as Phoenix and Dallas, plus about 10 rural routes in Michigan.
Efforts to develop self-driving vehicles have faced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Starsky Robotics shutting down. At the same time, the USPS and other logistics providers would benefit from such trucks in meeting the current demands that e-commerce has placed on their workers.
Imagine robots that could sort mail in vehicles, place envelopes and parcels in mailboxes or on doorsteps, and further minimize human contact and risk of infection. Even if postal workers did accompany autonomous mail trucks, their work would be halved in intensity, since they would only have to sort and place mail in each resident’s mailbox, without needing to worry about driving to every neighborhood that they serve.
Shifting supplies on pedestrian-free routes
Self-driving vehicles have already been used in factories, warehouses, and other semi-structured environments to move inventory between locations. Safety and cost are still important, but they are not as challenging as for autononomous passenger cars. However, development and testing of robotic vehicles for truck yards and other facilities can be difficult with fewer people on site.
Despite these challenges, Phantom Auto, which raised $22 million in Series A funding in April, recently announced the deployment of “productivity vehicles.” They can load and unload inventory on their own, without needing a worker to drive the trucks. The Burlingame, Calif.-based company calls these trucks “almost” autonomous in terms of their navigational capabilities, since they still need remote workers to guide them to the right locations within the yard.
However, these operators do not have to be physically present on site or inside the vehicles to drive them. This is possible because of new human-in-the-loop technology (HILT), advanced software that enables remote monitoring and assistance, as well as tele-operation in the case of emergencies. Autonomous assistance could be a great relief for workers employed at truck yards, but it’s now especially urgent that more facilities invest in technologies to multiply their efforts and socially distance employees.
In addition, the Mayo Clinic has been working to deliver coronavirus tests and medical supplies to hospitals on pedestrian-free routes in Jacksonville, Fla., to prevent workers from getting exposed to the virus. The organization has partnered with Beep on self-driving vehicles. About four of these shuttles are working independently on different routes while being monitored by Beep, Mayo Clinic, and Jacksonville Transport Authority officials.
Considering self-driving vehicles
As the pandemic drags on around the world, front-line workers from nurses to truck drivers have put in long hours, been forced to be apart from their families, and served ever-increasing demand. It’s now time for technology to help out, from robots in every link of the supply chain and self-driving vehicles for delivering groceries, mail, and other goods.
Autonomous vehicles that have already been approved for deployment or in the final stages of testing can already help. Teleoperation software not only enables better fleet management, but it can also provide safer troubleshooting. Several companies are already deploying self-driving vehicles to prevent exposing their workers and customers to the virus, and they will enjoy the benefits of greater efficiency long after the pandemic.
The shift to a more automated future that was originally expected for next year or later should start when we need it most, which is now. Are we ready to invest the efforts developing and testing self-driving vehicles immediately to perform our everyday tasks?
About the author
Madhuvanthi Sridhar has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. She has conducted research into the development of new technologies for self-driven cars, automation, and robotics. Sridhar has done extensive work in developing a traffic-light learning and prediction system for both autonomous and regular vehicles to improve vehicle fuel economy and reduce idling time at intersections.