A Journey of 1,000 Miles Begins With A Single Step

This will be my final week discussing the problem of consumer acceptance of autonomous vehicles (AVs) in the U.S. from my book The Future is Autonomous: The U.S. and China Race to Develop the Driverless Car.

People in the U.S. have over 100 years of driving an individually owned vehicle. AVs would represent a vastly different experience, especially if people changed from individual vehicle ownership to riding in a Shared Autonomous Vehicle (SAV) “robotaxi.” I describe a few new developments in my book to get people used to the idea of autonomy in general to gradually make them more aware of the benefits AVs could bring their lives.

With a potentially disruptive technology like the autonomous vehicle, the degree to which it penetrates society is hard to predict. So much is still unknown about the capabilities of autonomous vehicles. So much also depends on laws that will either accelerate or delay the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles. Or there could be a situation like there is now in the US of creating roadblocks for the production and deployment of these vehicles. Several applications of autonomous vehicles could be ready to deploy on a limited scale now or in the near future.

According to a July 2018 report by KPMG, investment in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic process automation (RPA) is currently at $12.4 billion. However, it is expected to increase to $232 billion by 2025. This staggering increase in funds for AI and RPA can largely be attributed to companies attempting to retain their current value during the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic

One thing is clear. Even after the economic downturn is over, there will be no going back to “business as usual.” Companies which learn to adopt automation into their business will thrive. Those that cannot will likely fail.

Automated systems, such as robots that clean the floor and stock shelves in stores, can both add efficiency to this process and increase people’s trust in automated technology. Robots operating in enclosed spaces like universities or short-distance delivery robots on sidewalks can offer nearly contactless delivery. This will allow for less risk of viral transmission during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The world’s largest retail store Walmart is using robots to perform many different tasks. These tasks include scrubbing the floors, scanning boxes, unloading boxes from trucks, and tracking shelf inventory. While labor groups complain this could cost people jobs, Walmart maintains staff will still be needed to assist customers. According to an article published by BBC News on April 19, 2020, people were apprehensive about these robot cleaners and scanner robots at Walmart stores in the US at first, preferring “a human element.”

I talked with David Kerrigan, author of Life as a Passenger: How Driverless Cars Will Change the World, about near-term use cases for autonomy. During our conversation, he mentioned the Walmart example as a positive example, saying, “So I think those simple environments, where you can have the cleaning and the stock taking robots operating when the store is closed (will be acceptable to consumers.” He then described how Walmart has started using the cleaning robots when the store is open. He described people’s reaction to these robots, saying, “Because of the positive effect on consumer’s perception of hygiene. Previously they didn’t want the robots to be visible but now consumers are actually pleased to see the robots cleaning,” which helps with hygiene. Perceptions of robots who operate in similar ways to autonomous vehicles will also be helpful for changing the public’s perception of autonomous vehicles.

Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu, who both worked at Google’s self-driving car project (now Waymo), left Google in 2016 and founded Nuro. Nuro focuses on short-distance or “last mile” delivery of goods. Their website promises customers can, “Get anything, anytime, anywhere.” With no driver and an open space to retrieve items a person orders ahead of time, there is minimal risk of person-to-person transmission of a virus. This service presents an ideal

Nuro created a system for its vehicles in which a person only needs to give a thumbs up to open and close the compartments containing their items. Nuro is also using vehicles from its autonomous vehicle delivery fleet to assist two field hospitals in California. The vehicles deliver medical supplies to health care workers working in the two stadiums that have been converted to hospitals to deal with patients infected with COVID-19.

Walmart has also created a pilot program with Nuro to deploy autonomous delivery trucks. In this pilot plan, Nuro vehicles will deliver groceries from a Walmart location in Houston, Texas to people’s houses. This deal between Nuro and Walmart represents a key first step in what could be a massive increase in the efficiency of the “last mile” and eventually in the long-haul freight trucking industry in the US.

I talked with Karolina Chachulska, who is the director for customer experience and growth at Infoedge. She has experience identifying near-term use cases for autonomous vehicles. She mentioned it is a very good time for Nuro to focus on grocery delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, she cautioned Nuro and small delivery robot company Starship “still [are] not fully contactless. We still need to think of how to make it fully contactless.” She then discussed companies, such as Postmates and Starship, that can drive on sidewalks. These robots still need to be controlled through a teleoperations system. She said, “Most frequently, the people are sitting hundreds, or thousands, of miles away from a delivery.” Because this process relies on teleoperation, she mentioned it relies on one absolutely critical point: connectivity. If Starship or Postmates robots do not have access to wireless data, the whole system shuts down.

People appreciate the convenience of having groceries, food, and other goods delivered to their homes, whether it is delivered through autonomous vehicles like Nuro, by Starship or Postmates robots, or delivery vehicles driven by humans. This trend has expanded in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic and is likely to continue, even after the pandemic goes away.

I have discussed several examples of how companies have used automated systems during the pandemic to increase people’s trust in automation in general and AVs specifically. People have grown to appreciate AV gods and grocery delivery from Nuro AVs or Postmates or Starship delivery robots and cleaning and stock taking robots at Walmart. However, I also discuss later in the chapter how the economic loss from the COVID-19 pandemic will also force states to make budgetary decisions that could impact the success of the AV industry.

State and local governments, which fund over four trillion dollars for public projects and services every year, will face dire financial decisions for the next several years due to the economic losses from the COVID-19 pandemic. These projects and services include funding for public schools, garbage and recycle truck drivers, parks, museum upkeep, and funding for new infrastructure or repairs for current infrastructure projects.

Estimates by local governments and organizations, such as the US Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities, project revenue losses of between fifteen and forty-five percent. This would mean reductions of up to $1.75 trillion per year for all of the essential projects and services state and local governments provide. Therefore, states and cities must make tough budgetary choices.

It will be crucial for companies in the autonomous vehicle industry to advocate for funding for infrastructure projects and educational services to assist the people who would lose their jobs in the short term with the adoption of autonomous vehicles by society. Things such as 5G wireless network connections and “New Infrastructure” projects like smart streetlights could greatly assist autonomous vehicles. However, basic infrastructure repairs such as repaving and repainting roads are essential for autonomous vehicles to drive safely on public roads. These infrastructure improvements would benefit both conventional and autonomous vehicles to drive more safely.

Ultimately, national, state, and local governments and organizations need to change to allow for a more seamless introduction of autonomous vehicles into society while protecting the workforce negatively affected by the introduction of autonomous vehicles. Policies also need to change and adapt over time, as well as the industries involved, for autonomous vehicles to succeed in the US.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides opportunities for autonomous vehicle companies to demonstrate how their services can be a significant help to people. However, the economic toll will also be a burden for the integration of this new technology into society. I will have one more article series discussing the issues of consumer acceptance of AVs before I will shift my sights to the policy realm!

If you are interested in learning more, please buy my book The Future is Autonomous: The U.S. and China Race to Develop the Driverless Car at any of the retail outlets below and remember to rate and review my book on Amazon if you choose to buy your book there!

Also, please don’t forget to rate and review the book on Amazon if you like it!



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