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What COVID-19 Has Taught Us About Mobility In Times Of Crisis


What COVID-19 Has Taught Us About Mobility In Times Of Crisis

If you think Malaysia is the only country to have adopted widespread restricted movement orders, think again. Most of the world has started to go into their own form of “lockdown” – some more voluntary than others, but the gist of it is the same. Don’t go out, don’t come in contact with other people, #DudukRumah.

But even as automotive manufacturers and various industries spin down their production and operations as demand drops, there is absolutely no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is stirring big changes in the way we view mobility and various other logistical services. It may very well accelerate our journey towards autonomous vehicles and drones, and here’s why.

People Still Need To Eat

This problem is one that’s two-fold. The first is how to get fresh produce and food from regions that are located further out – after all, you don’t see many farms in the city. The second is distributing that food to people who may not be able to access it themselves – whether it’s due to lock-down procedures or the fact that they may need to be quarantined. We're already seeing this happening here in Malaysia where the farmers from Cameron Highlands have been dumping their produce due to their inability to transport it to the towns for sale. A waste that might be preventable in the future. 

In both elements of this problem, there is a lot that autonomous driving and technology could do. While people are not allowed to travel interstate during this MCO, who is to say that automated lorries or vans could not do the job instead – running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and keeping that supply flowing. An autonomous vehicle could handle these large scale deliveries from farms to supermarkets, and possibly even be subjected to more aggressive methods of sanitization.

The second half of the problem is one that’s a little trickier. Distributing food to a housing area could either be done door to door – again with an autonomous van of sorts – or it could be done in tandem with drones that unload from a moving launch platform and deliver the produce throughout a particular area. Either way, you are limiting the contact with other people.

Emergency Services Are Still Required

A true lockdown, as is the case in some parts of our country, means that nobody is allowed to even leave their house. This also means that emergency services – ambulances in particular – are going to have to work double time if they have to ferry people around. Singapore is a very good example as they have queues of ambulances going to dedicated COVID-19 entry points to their hospitals – but these ambulances expose drivers and other occupants unnecessarily as well.

In times of crisis, there could be a blanket order for all autonomous cars to function as ambulances or transport to hospitals. These autonomous vehicles could roam or position themselves nearby housing areas such that they are only minutes away if necessary. If an emergency medical team is not required in these situations, the autonomous vehicle could easily transport someone to the nearest hospital.

People Need Things Delivered

From a person to person standpoint, one of the other things we are fast discovering during this crisis is that getting items from someone else may pose a bit of a problem. We have services like Grab who currently help to bridge that gap, but you also risk exposing yourself to anything that may be contaminated beforehand – including the Grab driver or rider.

This could be remedied with a drone service of sorts that could complete the last mile of the journey, and be paired with other forms of public transport such as trains in order to traverse greater distances without getting held up in traffic. With the right kind of systems integration and careful thought, a system like this would work very well in the majority of cases. We're not that far off from this becoming a reality with Amazon having unveiled their Prime Air delivery drone last year and UPS too now working with Wingcopter to develop its package delivery drones. 

The Crux Of It

The problem with what we’ve just listed is that these are things that would be beneficial regardless of whether we’re facing a crisis or not. Emergency services need not always require personnel, food logistics could be better managed and planned through autonomous services, and delivery would be no different.

Add to that the fact that a not insignificant growing minority of drivers don’t see the actual point in driving themselves, let alone owning a car, and you have a pretty strong case for the introduction of a self-driving car that you pay for as a service rather than one to own. Automotive manufacturers have to undergo a paradigm shift to become mobility solutions providers, and the faster they understand this next generation of customers, the better off their solutions will be.

This period of two (now four) weeks of semi-isolation has led many to realize that they don’t actually need to drive around as much as they currently do, if their offices or businesses can operate remotely. If you’re in a normally congested city like us, you will probably appreciate the temporarily scarce traffic on the roads – but expect all that to change once the MCO lifts.

In the future, however, you may find yourself carpooling regularly in something with no driver behind the wheel, with a couple of other strangers to boot.

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