Boosted thanks to their key role during the pandemic, autonomous vehicles are gaining ground in the delivery of goods, food and even home shopping. Credit: Nuro.

  • Tungsteno

This is how the pandemic accelerates the arrival of driverless transport

COVID-19 has put the focus squarely on biosecurity. Against the backdrop of social distancing and quarantines to curb the spread of the virus, technologies that were already seen as holding great promise (and threatening) to revolutionise transport and mobility are now gaining ground. Will the pandemic hasten the era of robots, drones and autonomous cars? We analyse this effect, focusing on the case of driverless vehicles.


The aspect of human disconnection that has always been negatively attributed to the automation of technologies is now seen as an advantage and a necessary weapon in dealing with situations of possible biological risk, such as those generated by the coronavirus. A study published in November 2019 and updated in the first months of the pandemic, considers that one of the most direct consequences of COVID-19 will be an explosion in the automation of movement-based tasks.

The European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) has described the autonomous car as a more sustainable and safer option, two qualities that have grown in value in the midst of the health crisis. In addition to avoiding contact with the driver in a 100% autonomous vehicle, technologies such as automated locks, the starting or stopping of the motor without a key or button, and mobile apps associated with the vehicle (temperature management, musical interface, etc.) reduce the direct contact of passengers with the surface of the vehicle. Voice assistants and artificial intelligence could also help detect symptoms in passengers, such as fever or cough, according to an analysis by the consulting firm Gartner.


The promise of the fully autonomous car, thanks to the developments experienced during the pandemic, is beginning to approach a horizon of 5 to 10 years. Credit: Neolix.


In a sector like that of the automobile, which has also been hit hard by the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic, the driverless car is seen as the best way to spur recovery. Although in the short term it will not escape the effects of the recession (the global market for driverless cars is expected to fall from $24.1 billion in 2019 to $23.33 in 2020), the forecasts for the future are encouraging: the market will reach $37.2 billion by 2023, according to the report Autonomous Cars Global Market Report 2020: COVID-19 Growth and Change.

The automation of employment, one of the negative aspects often cited with regard to the autonomous car, is not such a black and white issue in the sector, since logistics robots in factories are already fully integrated into current production and, in fact, in the transport sector there is currently a big shortage of truck drivers in countries like the USA, for example.


Autonomous vehicles: a success story during the pandemic


In countries such as China or the United States, driverless vehicles have been used to deliver food, medical supplies and even to disinfect public spaces during the pandemic. At the Haidian Hospital in Beijing, a 100% autonomous car developed by the companies Baidu Apollo and Neolix delivered lunches daily to the health-care workers, a group especially exposed to the virus. In Florida, USA, the Mayo Clinic used autonomous shuttles to transport COVID-19 tests from the point where samples were taken. Before the pandemic, there were already pioneering initiatives in the distribution of goods, such as the experiments of the American supermarket chain Walmart, which launched a pilot programme with autonomous Nuro cars in Houston, Texas, where they delivered to homes.


Driverless vehicles have been essential in managing the pandemic, from delivering food to serving as shuttles to transport samples. Credit: White Rhino.

The degree of autonomy of cars is measured by a scale established by the American Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). Vehicles that provide assistance to the driver (Advanced Driving Assistance Systems, ADAS) when parking, for example, are already available on the market (levels 1 and 2) and those that can drive alone in limited situations (levels 3 and 4) are already being tested, as are those of level 5 (no driver required). WAYMO, previously known as Google's self-driving project, or Tesla, which has even talked about testing entire fleets of vehicles without a driver, are already carrying out tests, according to an analysis by the Elcano Institute.

The fully autonomous and driverless car is expected to be on the commercial market between 2025 and 2030, according to the report The Future Structure of the Automotive Industry, by Oliver Wyman together with the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA). Before the pandemic, however, the forecasts for the autonomous car were much more conservative in terms of timing. Nevertheless, the experiments underway during this complex health crisis should speed up the process of letting technology take the wheel. In addition to reducing the fear of automation, driverless vehicles will also help to overcome other traditional obstacles, as they will facilitate the inclusion of people with reduced mobility and other health, social and economic limitations.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

  • Vehicles
  • Autonomous vehicles
  • Pandemic

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