Suddenly, a future full of self-driving cars isn’t just a sci-fi pipe dream. What used to be considered a scary, uncertain technology for many Americans looks more like an effective tool to protect ourselves from a fast-spreading, infectious disease.
With COVID-19 — the name for the disease caused by the new coronavirus — keeping most of us housebound, it’s harder to get around or bring in supplies safely. Forget about socializing, just stocking up on groceries, toiletries, and basic medicines and products is a risky challenge. Suddenly having robots and computers help us out doesn’t seem so far-fetched. All that money that’s been funneled into testing self-driving cars — $27.5 billion in 2018, according to data company Statista — is starting to look more and more worthwhile.
Before the coronavirus pandemic began, the sentiment was clear: We were not that excited about autonomous cars. Especially after an Uber self-driving car fatally struck a woman in Tempe, Arizona, in 2018, a general fear of the technology was pervasive. A March 2020 AAA survey found that only 12 percent of the Americans surveyed trusted riding in a self-driving car.
Research and consulting firm Deloitte surveyed 35,000 drivers from 20 different countries. Americans from that early 2020 study were decidedly wary about autonomous vehicles, with almost 50 percent worried that the cars were unsafe. More than two-thirds of the American respondents said they were “concerned” about autonomous vehicles on the highway.
Simulation software company Ansys’ CTO Prith Banerjee wrote in an email this week about how shelter-in-place requirements were giving people a new perspective. “The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the need for and opportunity for automation in every industry, including autonomous driving,” he said.
“The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the need for and opportunity for automation in every industry, including autonomous driving.”
This isn’t a fleeting shift. “In the future, autonomous vehicles (cars, drones, robots, etc.) can certainly have many positive applications, including some that would help in a global pandemic (and even everyday life) — delivering food, delivering medicine, transporting people while maintaining social distance,” he wrote.
Eitan Grosbard, VP of business development of Israeli autonomous software company Tactile Mobility, also sees how autonomous vehicles stand out during a pandemic, and beyond. “We don’t want any human interaction,” he said in a call this week. “These types of services will be more and more in need.”
Already, in China, companies like Neolix are capitalizing on human-free delivery services, with autonomous vehicles dropping off food, groceries, or whatever you want.
Optimus Ride, the Massachusetts-based autonomous shuttle company, had to pause its self-driving commute programs as workers in New York, Boston, and beyond started working from home. But as CEO Ryan Chin explained in a phone call, at a Northern California senior community, the Optimus Ride autonomous shuttles were immediately shifted to make food deliveries to seniors who could no longer congregate at mealtimes.
“Autonomous vehicle companies are positioned to come out of COVID-19 much stronger,” Chin said on the call after explaining the pivot from autonomously moving people to food deliveries.
Anuja Sonalker, CEO of Steer Tech, a self-parking tech company based out of Maryland, said in a recent phone call that she’s seeing a perception shift, too.
“There have been distinct warming up to human-less, contactless technology,” she said. “Humans are biohazards, machines are not.”
It seems that if we can get a fully driverless car to transport us or deliver supplies, the technology scares us a bit less. Now people see a driverless car as a helpful alternative to the crowded, exposure-risky mass transit train and bus rides we used to take. After this pandemic ends, “personal mobility will be preferred” — meaning private, individual ways to get around, Sonalker predicted.
Even though Waymo suspended all its paid self-driving car services (called Waymo One) in the Phoenix area, and its testing programs, earlier in March, the Google spinoff self-driving car company CEO noted the value of its service. “Removing the human driver holds great promise not only for making our roads safer but for helping our riders stay healthy in these uncertain times,” John Krafcik wrote in a LinkedIn post.
So even if only 14 percent of 22,000 people surveyed by Ansys last year say they’re ready to ride in an autonomous car now, the past few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic have likely recalibrated what people actually fear. Let’s see what happens in the next few months.