Autonomous Vehicles and the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Pierre Olivier,
Chief Technology Officer


Unless you were living under a rock, then you are well aware of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has rapidly transformed the daily life of people worldwide.  As I write this, more than half of the world’s population is subject to strict confinement measures restricting their ability to go to work, attend school or shop, among many other things.

Critically, although there have been around 5 million* diagnosed cases worldwide, and even assuming that a larger number of cases are asymptomatic and undiagnosed, it is probably a fair assessment to say that less than 1%, or 80 million people have contracted the virus so far.  However, experts speculate that until 70% of the population has been infected, the risk of exponential numbers of new cases overwhelming the medical systems remains present.  Furthermore, vaccines will not be available to the masses for maybe 12 to 18 months (or more).

What this means is that the current situation – social distancing, working from home, etc. – is not only a short-term concern and is most likely to become a “new normal”, perhaps for a couple years at least.

Given this, people think of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) as a valid means of helping ensure essential services, such as delivering goods or allowing essential short-distance commuting, with a lesser risk of spreading the virus.

This is an intriguing proposition and it stands to be considered.

On the positive side, there are less people out on the streets as well as less vehicles on the road.  Therefore, it can be assumed that the risk to life and property due to malfunctioning AVs would be less than under pre-“new-normal”  conditions;  furthermore, one of the solutions proposed to cope with the immaturity of AVs has been to have remote operators monitoring or even actively controlling the vehicles;  this is a job that is well suited to be performed by people working from home.
Just imagine tele-operating a delivery robot from your living room!

On the flip side, some argue that without an operator actively tending to the vehicle, the risk of the virus spreading by the vehicle or within the vehicle is high.  We can see, for instance, that taxi drivers take stringent measures to clean all surfaces of their cars between customers; would the same level of care be possible with AVs?

In either case, many questions remain unanswered.  What is certain is that both AVs and COVID-19 are here to stay.
As a scientist and a supplier of technology to the AV industry, I am certainly confident AVs will outlast COVID-19.
The pros of AVs – whether it be environmental, reduction of traffic, safety or economic, will continue to gain public favour as the technology continues to develop.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the issue.

If you have any AV-related projects aimed at helping with the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s talk!
I trust you will find that LeddarTech’s offering, including sensors which are available today, can help in building reliable and cost-effective AVs for Automated Delivery, shuttles, etc.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and work together to address the challenges that COVID-19 presents humanity with while at the same time ensuring we do not compromise safety.

I look forward to hearing from you.

If you would like to reach out to Pierre, please email: [email protected]

* Latest data pulled on May 21st 2020 from the John Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard