• The COVID-19 pandemic is putting pressure on deliveries and local logistics.
  • Autonomous vehicles (AVs) could help alleviate the strain on existing delivery services while reducing the risk of exposure for citizens.
  • Yet regulatory hurdles remain before AVs can be deployed at scale.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put an incredible strain on global supply chains, from medical supplies to household goods, as spikes in demand stress-test logistics infrastructures. There is an opportunity for unmanned delivery vehicles to assist in addressing this demand and help to reduce the risk of spreading infection.

Here's a look at some of the challenges and opportunities for automated vehicles (AVs) in last-mile deliveries and local logistics.

COVID-19 has put the focus on local logistics

In the World Economic Forum’s recently published report on "The Future of the Last-Mile Ecosystem," we anticipated that demand for e-commerce delivery will result in 36% more delivery vehicles in inner cities by 2030. The COVID-19 crisis has caused a huge increase in demand, as people around the world are self-isolating, quarantining or working from home for extended periods, suddenly increasing the need for food, groceries, household items and even medical supplies to be delivered to the homes of millions of people.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

More pressingly, food banks, shelters, senior care facilities, hospitals and clinics are also facing logistics challenges, as their operations are disrupted and stretched by this pandemic.

This increased demand has already strained the existing supply chain and delivery infrastructures of many providers. It also creates a considerable risk of exposure to delivery drivers and increases the potential for them to spread the infection. This pressing risk of exposure, as well as the strain on existing delivery services, could potentially be alleviated by automated delivery vehicles.

The response from delivery providers in China showcases the potential of rapid deployments of driverless delivery vehicles. As highlighted by our colleague’s article on mobility in China during the coronavirus lockdown, a number of providers, including JD.com and Meituan Dianping, have expedited the adoption of automated vehicles in order to launch contactless delivery services distributing groceries and medical supplies.

Regulatory barriers exist, largely for good reason

Using AVs for deliveries may require some work on the regulatory front. Broadly speaking, in many markets, in order to trial an automated vehicle designed to operate without an occupant on the pubic roads, the AV developer must petition the regulator to make an exemption from the existing vehicle safety standards, which require human-operable controls and mirrors, for example.

In the US, one such exemption was recently granted to Nuro, a California-based builder of unmanned autonomous delivery vehicles. This required a lengthy petitioning process, and the regulator only grants a fixed-term exemption, which subsequently needs to be repeated in order to continue to allow the company to operate. Given the exceptional circumstances currently facing the world, this regulatory band-aid seems like an unnecessarily lengthy hurdle to a potentially beneficial technology.

Now, should one choose not to go down this path to seek exemption from national vehicle standards requiring a steering wheel and pedals, it is possible to operate an AV today built based upon an existing production vehicle that meets the relevant market requirements. Unfortunately, at this time there is only one company in the US, Waymo, that is permitted to operate AVs on the public roads without a human inside – all others must rely on safety drivers to be present in the vehicle – which dilutes the potential to offer driverless deliveries at this time.

Naturally, this raises the question of readiness; given that the state of California has already made a regulatory pathway to the operation of driverless vehicles, yet only one operator holds such a permit, is this technology ready for the prime time?

Of course, many of these regulations exist to ensure the safe development of this nascent technology, and it would be foolish to scrap such safety guidelines. But given the potential for AVs to assist in this crisis, regulators should consider the merits of agile, performance-based technology frameworks for automated vehicles.

One highly successful example of a performance-based regulatory framework is the policy co-developed by the Forum for Drones in Rwanda, which enables life-saving blood deliveries to remote communities by allowing airspace access for unmanned aircraft on a mission-specific basis.

For AVs, regulators should consider the opportunities to streamline these processes while upholding standards for safety while considering a new generation of agile regulation. This will enable trials of these technologies to help maintain the delivery ecosystem in these difficult times.

Mobilizing the AV community

The World Economic Forum's Platform for Shaping the Future of Mobility is currently bringing together its industry community to explore how AVs could assist in the COVID-19 crisis. This challenging time presents an opportunity for the AV industry to come together and put aside their competitive differences, to find ways to collaborate and assist the community as people stay home to help slow the spread and to put their fleets of vehicles to good use in this crisis.