Moving beyond skepticism in the pandemic: Automation for the public good

Moving beyond skepticism in the pandemic: Automation for the public good
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In recent years, the debate over the utility of autonomous vehicles (AVs) has been wide-ranging and somewhat skeptical. We have seen reports about how this technology would save millions of lives from collisions and polling that questions that near-term value proposition given the scale of investment. Academics have debated whether automation will contribute to increases in driving or changes to urban form and the way cities are designed.

Rarely have we considered how AVs could serve the public during emergency situations, or how they can be practically applied today in a crisis. Rarely have we given thought to problems like those our planet currently faces. 

And yet, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, that is what we have seen — a surge in creative and practical applications of automation that serve the public good. Companies like Cruise have moved from testing vehicles on public roads to engaging in contactless delivery of food to the elderly for the local food bank — with more than 50,000 meals delivered thus far

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Nuro’s self-driving team has advanced its prescription delivery pilot and is delivering meals and medical supplies to COVID-19 treatment facilities. China has focused many of its vehicle starts on logistics and transporting equipment and supplies to frontline workers. It has also advanced efforts to engage automation in robotic cleaning and sanitization. These new applications of automation and robotics are an important development and warrant new ways of thinking about the role of AVs over the coming years, and how they can provide public good in times of need and beyond. 

During the tragic California wildfires of 2017, my colleague Michael Boswell and I considered how cities could use AVs to enhance evacuation and emergency response. At that point, we were thinking about a potential need for specialized vehicles (think autonomous Humvees) that could rescue people during wildfires, earthquakes or floods. We envisioned that these might be equipped with specialized lights and speakers, real time emergency response and up-to-date terrain (as well as street) data — all of which could enhance the ability to save lives. We also put forward that “all options require that government emergency managers and autonomous vehicle companies to work together.”

Time has shown that these ideas were fertile, and my call for collaboration and advanced planning remains the same. Today we see that the applicable use cases for AVs could extend far beyond simply rescuing individuals. As we’ve seen through the pandemic, these vehicles can play an essential role in the pick-up and drop-off of food and medical supplies, and serve as critical pieces of public infrastructure in a crisis. 

I recognize that some people may see the idea of private sector companies serving the public good as naïve and altruistic, but it is not an outlier. During the 20th century, we saw private companies mobilize to support war production efforts, and we saw some of the same companies pivot to produce ventilators at the start of the pandemic. Moreover, over the past years we have seen public sector companies recognize (and invest in) societally beneficial infrastructure like transit and affordable housing. These new public-private partnerships may hold a roadmap for how future autonomous vehicle companies might work to align civic and corporate goals, particularly in crisis situations. Autonomous vehicle companies could play critical roles – preserving the public good and maintaining continuity of operations – during these periods of social and economic shock.

One thing is clear: The policy dialogue must begin now. We must clearly define the triggers when private fleets need to serve a higher purpose, and establish coordinating mechanisms to quickly facilitate AV deployment to fulfill emergency transportation for goods, supplies and critical personnel. The potential for the technology is clearer than ever. But in order to unlock it, we must enact policies that allow the private sector to invest in AV development at scale, while ensuring robust public-private sector coordination and dialogue.

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That framework does not yet exist. Technology development is stymied by small volume production caps and the lack of a unified national approach that is critical to investments and advancements at scale. That must change if we are to achieve the public benefit that we see AVs can achieve in future crises.  

If Amazon’s recent purchase of Zoox is any indication, AVs are part of our future. Recent consumer surveys showing an increase in favorability of AV technology seem to confirm this. In this context, these are the policy dialogues we need to be having; these are the things we need to be talking about as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the words of Winston Churchill, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Let us leverage innovation to increase our resilience in the face of problems that threaten us on a human level. Let us move beyond skepticism and make sure that the future of automation delivers substantial health and safety benefits for the public good. 

William Riggs, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of management and a consultant, focusing on future mobility, smart transportation, housing, economics and other urban development issues. His most recent book is “Disruptive Transport: Driverless Cars, Transport Innovation and the Sustainable City of Tomorrow” (2019).