Weekly Brief: Driverless Cars Could Become Latest Virus Victims

The Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, enlisted the help of four self-driving shuttles last week to move coronavirus test samples from a drive-thru testing site to a nearby processing laboratory.

With medical professionals overworked and stretched thin between facilities, the clinic decided to partner up with Beep and Navya to put the shuttles into action. The autonomous vehicles have no drivers or safety attendants on board, given the clinic’s desire to keep exposure to the coronavirus to a minimum. Mayo Clinic health professionals load the test samples into secure containers before placing them on the shuttles. The shuttles then follow a special route to the clinic’s campus without having to navigate cars, bikers or pedestrians.

It’s a nice example of how companies and local, state and federal departments are embracing novel solutions, which otherwise could take months or years to enact, in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Indeed, autonomous delivery bots may end up being one of the unintended benefactors of this terrible pandemic. Their utility goes beyond medical deliveries. With more than a third of the global population now sheltering in place and eager to limit interaction with outsiders, be they grocery store attendants or UPS deliverymen, the idea of drones or self-driving cars showing up at our front doors with deliveries in tow holds new appeal.

It remains to be seen if, or how quickly, companies ramp up robot deliveries. If the Mayo Clinic’s service is successful, expect to see more deployments in similar controlled environments. If that happens, it will help to justify start-ups and carmakers continuing to devote money to autonomous technology at a time when the whole industry is convulsing.

That’s the flip side of this pandemic. Automakers have been forced to shutter their factories, postpone their new vehicle debuts and close their showrooms. Last week Q1 sales figures arrived in the United States and they were abysmal. The especially scary part was that January and February were actually pretty good months for car sales in the US but March was so bad that it drove Q1 sales down by 15% for BMW, 14% for Audi, more than 20% for Honda, and 14% for Jeep. Q2 is likely to be much, much worse. In March the Chinese automarket suffered its worst downturn in history due to the coronavirus, with sales down 80% in February alone.

In such dire times, it’s hard to imagine automakers continuing to invest vast sums of money on autonomous technology that likely won’t contribute a dime of revenue for years to come. Self-driving delivery bots may sound appealing right now but self-driving taxis that don’t have any drivers to sanitize the cabin between passengers sound like a biological disaster waiting to happen. No wonder Waymo suspended all of its self-driving services a couple weeks ago. It’s anyone’s guess when they will resume. Also when they do, will carmakers be as keen to try and keep up with the self-driving car revolution?

This could end up being a boon for Waymo, which has the deep pockets of Alphabet to keep financing any future initiatives. Carmakers meanwhile will be on life support and start-ups will have to navigate fundraising rounds from funders who are short on cash. The only thing certain right now is uncertainty. Stay safe, stay home and control what you can as best as you can until we’re all through this together.

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