The devastating personal and financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have required world leaders to resort to previously unimaginable tactics – including shutting down entire cities – to slow the spread. Could self-driving cars be another unconventional answer to defeating COVID-19 or preventing future pandemics?
How self-driving cars could help during the COVID-19 crisis
“Having a car that drives itself is the answer to a lot of today’s problems, especially during this pandemic,” says Michael Lowe, CEO of Car Passionate.
It’s long been known that autonomous vehicles offer the potential to minimize human error as well as our carbon footprint; as Lowe points out, most of these vehicles being developed are electric. Now, they present another benefit: defense in the fight against a pandemic.
While rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft are taking measures to protect their drivers during the COVID-19 pandemic, as humans, these workers are still exposing themselves to the possibility of contracting and transmitting the virus.
A fleet of driverless vehicles could shuttle people without symptoms to the store or transport ill patients to get medical attention without risking a driver’s infection, in turn sparing not only the drivers’ families, but all subsequent riders a driver would have interacted with throughout the day. With proper cleaning practices, driverless rideshares could protect both drivers and riders.
For an industry where one company, Uber, completed an average of 14 million trips per day, the impact could be significant.
Are we there yet?
Although there have already been proven applications for utilizing self-driving vehicles during this pandemic by transporting personal and medical supplies, experts say we are much farther away from transporting people.
“Self-driving technology is really nowhere near being able to actually ferry passengers around without having a human in the driver’s seat ready to intervene to prevent catastrophe,” says Amy Finlay, Co-founder of Edinburgh IFA.
How COVID-19 is impacting self-driving cars
The coronavirus pandemic has impacted businesses across the world. Self-driving companies are no exception. “It will definitely have an effect on the progress of the development of the self-driving technology,” Finlay says.
While this technology aims to develop cars that will operate without needing a human driver, the process of creating and testing these vehicles still involves people, and right now those workers are subject to strict social distancing measures.
In fact, many driverless companies have responded to the COVID-19 crisis with restrictions on operations. Waymo posted an update to its website announcing that its services will be “suspended for now, along with local delivery and truck testing.”
The future of self-driving cars
Although driverless technology is not ready to transport people during this pandemic, self-driving cars have the potential to be a powerful tool against any future outbreaks.
Cars that can transport anything from people to medical and personal supplies without putting drivers or their passengers in danger could not only slow the spread of an infectious disease, but also support social distancing and contactless delivery efforts when needed.
Experts agree that Tesla is showing the biggest promise when it comes to this type of technology. “Other companies like Toyota, Audi and even Google are developing self-driving cars, but Tesla has had the earliest successful start,” says Lowe.
Finlay explains another reason why Tesla is so far ahead: “Tesla has a global network of vehicles which consumers have actually paid for the privilege of driving, and even paid extra to be able to have the fully automated driving option included in their car.”
As companies race toward the first street-legal fully autonomous vehicle, they are simultaneously developing technology to help the world defeat the next pandemic.
At the Simple Dollar, we have been following COVID-19 since the start. Check out the articles below for resources and the latest news on financial relief from the coronavirus.