Before the coronavirus pandemic started in late 2019, the idea of having autonomous vehicles in cities was not received with great enthusiasm by the public and some authorities. Accidents, such as an Uber self-driving test car that killed a woman in Arizona in 2018, contributed to increase weariness of this new technology.
A 2020 survey by AAA, a U.S-based federation of motor clubs, found that only 12% of Americans were willing to trust a self-driving car. A study by the Ipsos research center noted that in 2019 there was even less interest in autonomous vehicles than in 2017, highlighting a decreasing trend. Only 19% of consumers surveyed said they are interested in purchasing autonomous vehicles. In another recent survey, which included 35,000 drivers from 20 countries, 50% of participants considered self-driving cars unsafe.
Covid-19 and Autonomous Vehicles
The situation might be changing. With the coronavirus pandemic ravaging many parts of the world, emergency measures seriously limit people’s lives. A debate is starting to emerge as to what could be done to limit future outbreaks.
This has led to a growing interest in technologies that help minimize physical contacts between human beings. Suddenly, a future full of self-driving vehicles no longer seems an idea out of a science fiction movie.
The first results are already here: Neolix, a Chinese autonomous delivery company, deployed fleets of self-driving vans to transport medical supplies and food to areas of the country most affected by COVID-19. These included the epicenter of the epidemic, the city of Wuhan. In addition, small self-driving vans were used to disinfect streets in the city.
And in Florida, self-driving shuttles by NAVYA are transporting Covid-19 test samples from a drive-through to a nearby laboratory.
Transport in post-quarantine era
When pandemic restrictions on movement are lifted, what will be our approach to transport? A sense of uncertainty in moving around using public transport is likely to persist. In addition, it’s plausible that cities will implement limits on the capacity of public transport vehicles to avoid overcrowding. Therefore, many cities are already installing new bicycle paths to encourage the use of alternative means of transport.
However, it will be necessary to provide more options to travel around cities, especially for long distance trips. These options may include on-demand services, taxis and shared services. So why not take a step further and encourage the spread of, for example, self-driving taxis? They are already active in China. Autonomous vehicles would help reduce the risk of infection, avoiding contact between users and a driver.
Test autonomous vehicles safely
But how can we ensure rapid and efficient development of self-driving technology? How can safety be ensured in mixed traffic, where human drivers share the road with autonomous vehicles?
The different scenarios of interaction between autonomous vehicles and “human” traffic can be tested in a virtual environment, with simulation software. This can help planners minimize road safety risks and evaluate the best solutions.
One of these software, PTV Vissim, can test the behavior of autonomous vehicles in any traffic context, including unforeseen events such as accidents or weather events. Various types of roads, different vehicle behaviors, unexpected situations are possible: planners can test autonomous vehicles by reproducing the road conditions of any city in the world, resulting in reduced risks.