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Automated Delivery Robots Are Taking Advantage of Emptier-Than-Usual Streets

2 min read
Mar 11, 2020
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Automated vehicles run into things. Some are big and fast enough to hurt people. So what better time to test them than when people are afraid to go outside? The robots just want to get to work. No budget for hand sanitizer needed.

The coronavirus outbreak seems to be a chance for them to do just that. In China, the need for robots to do everything from deliver medicine to disinfect streets has meant a lightening of regulations around their use. Bloomberg recently reported that 200 orders were made for Neolix self-driving vans in the past two months.

This exceptional situation for autonomous vehicles only applies to China for now. However, it's not out of the question that other countries put similar vehicles to work as COVID-19 spreads around the world. 

Nuro, an American company, recently got approval to test their vehicles on American streets. The approval is not related to the coronavirus, but the public health crisis certainly presents a good PR opportunity: show an automated vehicle making grocery deliveries at a time when Americans are being told to stay at home and avoid crowds. Such an occasion could be key for convincing the public these vehicles are safe and trustworthy, despite much recent coverage suggesting the contrary.

The timing seems perfect for autonomous delivery technology, whose emergence has been a long time coming. There are too many competitors to list: Kiwibot, Starship, Amazon are all prominent names. There are also hundreds of Chinese companies like Neolix working on various kinds of robotic automation.

The "last-mile" problem also seems more and more pressing, even without the threat of COVID-19. Reports of package thefts have gone up as more people order online. Customers want a convenient way to pick up what they order, especially for perishable items like groceries. In-store pickup is popular just for this reason. Automated delivery could offer even more flexible options so customers get their purchases when and where is most convenient.

Although the widespread use of such robots is still years away, the COVID-19 outbreak might be the key to getting past recent concerns that autonomous vehicles aren’t safe. We might see the future they offer and decide to let the robots get to work.