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Could COVID-19 open the door for driverless deliveries?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has put an incredible strain on global supply chains, from medical supplies to household goods, as spikes in demand stress-test logistics infrastructures. There is an opportunity for unmanned delivery vehicles to assist in addressing this demand and help to reduce the risk of spreading infection.

Here's a look at some challenges and opportunities for automated vehicles (AVs) in last-mile deliveries and local logistics.

COVID-19 has put the focus on local logistics

In the World Economic Forum’s recently published report on "The Future of the Last-Mile Ecosystem," we anticipated that demand for e-commerce delivery will result in 36 percent more delivery vehicles in inner cities by 2030. The COVID-19 crisis has caused a huge increase in demand, as people around the world are self-isolating, quarantining or working from home for extended periods, suddenly increasing the need for food, groceries, household items and even medical supplies to be delivered to the homes of millions of people.

More pressingly, food banks, shelters, senior care facilities, hospitals and clinics also face logistics challenges, as their operations are disrupted and stretched by this pandemic.

This pressing risk of exposure, as well as the strain on existing delivery services, potentially could be alleviated by automated delivery vehicles.

This increased demand already has strained the existing supply chain and delivery infrastructures of many providers. It also creates a considerable risk of exposure to delivery drivers and increases the potential for them to spread the infection. This pressing risk of exposure, as well as the strain on existing delivery services, potentially could be alleviated by automated delivery vehicles.

The response from delivery providers in China showcases the potential of rapid deployments of driverless delivery vehicles. As highlighted by our colleague’s article on mobility in China during the coronavirus lockdown, a number of providers, including JD.com and Meituan Dianping, have expedited the adoption of automated vehicles in order to launch contactless delivery services distributing groceries and medical supplies.

Regulatory barriers exist, largely for good reason

Using AVs for deliveries may require some work on the regulatory front. Broadly speaking, in many markets, in order to trial an automated vehicle designed to operate without an occupant on the public roads, the AV developer must petition the regulator to make an exemption from the existing vehicle safety standards, which require human-operable controls and mirrors, for example.

In the United States, one such exemption recently was granted to Nuro, a California-based builder of unmanned autonomous delivery vehicles. This required a lengthy petitioning process, and the regulator only grants a fixed-term exemption, which subsequently needs to be repeated in order to continue to allow the company to operate. Given the exceptional circumstances currently facing the world, this regulatory Band-Aid seems an unnecessarily lengthy hurdle to a potentially beneficial technology.

Now, should one choose not to go down this path to seek exemption from national vehicle standards requiring a steering wheel and pedals, it is possible to operate an AV today built based upon an existing production vehicle that meets the relevant market requirements. Unfortunately, at this time only one company in the U.S., Waymo, is permitted to operate AVs on the public roads without a human inside — all others must rely on safety drivers to be present in the vehicle — which dilutes the potential to offer driverless deliveries at this time.

Naturally, this raises the question of readiness. Given that the state of California already has made a regulatory pathway to the operation of driverless vehicles, yet only one operator holds such a permit, is this technology ready for the prime time?

For AVs, regulators should consider the opportunities to streamline these processes while upholding standards for safety while considering a new generation of agile regulation.

Of course, many of these regulations exist to ensure the safe development of this nascent technology, and it would be foolish to scrap such safety guidelines. But given the potential for AVs to assist in this crisis, regulators should consider the merits of agile, performance-based technology frameworks for automated vehicles.

One highly successful example of a performance-based regulatory framework is the policy co-developed by the Forum for Drones in Rwanda, which enables life-saving blood deliveries to remote communities by allowing airspace access for unmanned aircraft on a mission-specific basis.

For AVs, regulators should consider the opportunities to streamline these processes while upholding standards for safety while considering a new generation of agile regulation. This will enable trials of these technologies to help maintain the delivery ecosystem in these difficult times.

Mobilizing the AV community

The World Economic Forum's Platform for Shaping the Future of Mobility is bringing together its industry community to explore how AVs could assist in the COVID-19 crisis. This challenging time presents an opportunity for the AV industry to come together and put aside their competitive differences, to find ways to collaborate and assist the community as people stay home to help slow the spread and to put their fleets of vehicles to good use in this crisis.

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