Could Coronavirus Complications Make AVs More Popular?
As the coronavirus epidemic scares populations out of stores, transportation hubs, and stock markets, autonomous vehicles may be getting a leg up in China. Bloomberg reports that Neolix, an autonomous delivery company based in Beijing, has seen a surge in demand as people opt to stay home (or are forced into quarantined by the Chinese government). Founder Yu Enyuan said the startup has booked orders for more than than 200 autonomous delivery pods since knowledge of COVID-19 became public — noting it had only produced 125 units in the eight months leading up to that.
Thanks to being overhyped by an industry that wasn’t anywhere near as far along as claimed, autonomous vehicles haven’t earned a lot of love lately. Yet Neolix’s minor victory suggests they may have useful applications that previously went ignored. In the realm of humanoid robotics, the goal if often to design a platform that can successfully fill in for a living, breathing person when the surrounding environment becomes too dangerous. Why not for AVs?
Amid the virus anxiety that has disrupted businesses and supply chains, China’s push into autonomous transport and the future of delivery is getting an unexpected boost. Neolix’s small vans help customers reduce physical contact and address labor shortages caused by lingering quarantines and travel restrictions.
Neolix’s inventories have been depleted during the epidemic with its vehicles being used to deliver medical supplies in hospitals, including in Wuhan, at the outbreak’s epicenter. Its vans are also being used to help disinfect streets and move food to people who are working on the front lines to curb the spread of the virus, Yu said.
Delivery bots aren’t new; practically every company that could benefit from their existence has a partnership or exploratory development program involving them. However, self-driving medical supply and support vehicles have been something largely reserved for military concepts, with few even entering the testing phase. Helped by the coronavirus outbreak, Neolix is bridging the gap between commercial and emergency services.
“Demand has been surging since the virus outbreak and more importantly, people’s perception toward driverless delivery had a complete 180-degree shift,” Yu explained. “People realize that such vehicles can get things done when it is risky for a human being to do so.”
The Chinese government has eased restrictions on AVs since COVID-19 started impacting local communities. With practically no one on the street and food shortages cropping up in quarantined areas, self-driving delivery vehicles were seen as a potential solution. Yu said China is currently providing incentives (up to 60 percent off) to those interested in purchasing and maintaining autonomous delivery vans and believes it will help him sell 1,000 units (the company calls them “Neolithic unmanned vehicles”) in 2020. Bloomberg stopped shy of urging readers to invest in the company but hinted that this will radically change the AV game in China and the United States — which has also eased regulations to help startups get more self-driving vehicles on public roads this year.
We can’t speak to that. Autonomy has been repeatedly oversold by the automotive industry and we wouldn’t blame anyone for putting their cash elsewhere. Still, it does look like virus-related complications has given the delivery sector a bit of a boost. Assuming the coronavirus scare lasts more than a handful of months, maybe this will push manufacturers toward more practical applications.
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