Coronavirus: what differences could driverless vehicles make?

Technology and Business

Phil Brown

Phil Brown



At the moment, it seems that every news story is covering the coronavirus pandemic. Considering this, it seems natural to question how our topic, driverless cars, could make a difference. Here are our thoughts. 

As most of Europe and many of the world’s nations head into a very uncertain period, with lockdowns, curfews and emergency measures severely restricting people’s lives, the debates are just starting to emerge around what could have been done to prevent such a widespread outbreak, and indeed what could be done to curb future outbreaks. 


From an autonomous driving perspective, computer-operated vehicles could bring a lot of changes to the way we travel. So how exactly could driverless vehicles benefit us during times where social distancing is ‘the norm’? 

Emergency vehicle autonomous

Autonomous ambulances 

Sadly, the current strain of coronavirus and its associated disease, Covid-19, can cause serious health problems. Currently, many health systems are under immense strain trying to treat patients, a strain that naturally extends beyond the hospital doors and to mobile support staff. Ambulances in particular are in high demand as patients require ferrying from their homes to hospitals, with crews across the world beginning to be stretched way beyond normal capacity. 


What if we could take at least one person out of the vehicle? Driverless ambulances could do the tough job of navigating the route while paramedics do the hard work in the back of the vehicle. The idea of drones supporting these driverless ambulances has already been discussed too, with airborne eyes-in-the-sky letting the ambulance know of traffic or obstacles ahead, as well as adding an audible warning to other drivers. 


The only drawback with driverless ambulances is the need for an exceptional piece of AI behind the wheel. Ambulances require highly skilled, trained drivers who can make split second decisions in road traffic situations and ensure that people with potentially life-threatening conditions get to the hospital as quickly possible. With ethical decision making and potentially dangerous manoeuvres suddenly put into the hands of a very non-human computer, the journey to the emergency room could look a lot different – for the worse. 


However, if autonomous ambulances prove themselves to be safer and more efficient drivers than humans, then this could have been the time to prove it. Or, we could even take ambulances off the road altogether… 

Easy mile vehicle

Self-driving cars and public transport 

One application that driverless technologies are perfect for is social transport, including “People Mover” like those proposed by French company Easymile. Integrated driverless public transport would not only make networks more efficient, but also remove more personal vehicles from the road. However, in situations where social distancing is prominent and there is a lower requirement for mass transit, public transport would need to be swapped out for a flexible and more individualised solution. 


This is where driverless taxis could pick up the slack, ferrying key workers across cities rather than exposing them to the severe overcrowding seen on systems like London’s underground during the Coronavirus pandemic. If you’ve been to Japan, then you may have experienced taxi doors that open themselves, as well as heavily sanitised interiors that help each taxi in the nation to remain incredibly clean and pleasurable to ride in. 


These simple, already-existing solutions could easily be adapted to driverless vehicles, along with voice command technology that would allow the passenger to give their destination without having to touch any panels or screens. Payments would then happen via phone, as they often already do, and the taxi could potentially disinfect itself using sprays or head to a nearby cleaning station, ready for use by another passenger. 


However, with an increased reliance on vehicles with smaller capacities, the steps towards more environmentally friendly way of travelling are suddenly reduced significantly. Using taxis or individual vehicles over mass transport would slow the spread of viruses, but it would need to be a short-term measure. The long-term solution to overcrowded roads and higher carbon emissions will rather be the most efficient co-operation between driverless public and individual transport.

autonomous packaging

Driverless trucks and supply chains 

Aside from the health issues and sweeping changes to daily life, one of the biggest problems faced by societies across the planet is disruption to the supply chain. From border closures to curfews, the ability to move goods from A to B, or indeed import them through usual routes becomes more difficult. With border patrol staff off sick and more checks in place to check drivers or potentially even for stowaways, crossing countries takes a lot longer. 


Then there’s the demand. As we’ve seen in countries across the world, even the beginning of a mild crisis sees humans panic buying, snapping up essentials in bulk ‘just in case’ there isn’t a quick end to the impending changes. It’s the main reason why governments are trying to keep up the goods transport traffic under any circumstance. 


Half the battle with the coronavirus pandemic has been the inability for supermarkets to restock the shelves fast enough, even if they have the stock already in the supply chain. Thanks to staff being told to quarantine, fewer store assistants, managers and drivers mean that products in demand end up being caught up in transit or in warehouses, with logistics teams unable to respond to the extremely high demand. According to Mohammed Esa, Chief Commercial Officer of global logistics group Agility, the current supply chain journeys across Europe that would normally take 2-3 days are now taking twice as long, if not longer. 


This is where autonomous trucks (already being tested in the EU) could continue rolling stock out into stores, removing the need for human drivers altogether. With computers that don’t need to sleep, take a rest break or indeed fall ill, timings could be reduced significantly, helping goods to reach shelves at a faster pace. 


On a personal level, the ‘bring it to me’ supply chain could also benefit hugely from driverless deliveries. In Europe, many governments are recommending that households have shopping and food delivered to help reduce the number of infections. 


Dominos may already have the autonomous pizza bike’, which hasn’t really taken off yet, but the concept is pretty solid, especially if it takes a human away from doorsteps. But even if we haven’t got the capacity to create a whole new system to whisk groceries to homes via a robot, we could adapt the Uber Eats models to the autonomous taxis discussed earlier. 


Just order your food, have it placed in the back of a driverless taxi by the restaurant then pick it up straight from the boot or back seat, with no human contact needed for the entire delivery. 


These concepts may seem necessary or even welcome at this moment in time, but they do point to a future where human interaction becomes even more limited. With autonomous vehicles working their way into our daily lives, we could get to the stage where it’s entirely possible to do a full day, or even longer, without having to interact with anyone. And even though it may be better for health in this short term, it may not be what we envision for human interaction in future societies. 


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