The Covid-19 pandemic has nudged some U.S. companies into taking autonomous vehicles for a test drive in new ways.
In Texas, some CVS Health Corp. customers may now pick up their prescriptions at the curb from driverless automobiles, and soon, road-ready and licensed robots. And the Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic is using driverless vehicles to zip Covid-19 test samples around its Florida campus.
“If you can demonstrate the driverless delivery-use case, you have the opportunity to show the value of AVs,” said Ariel Wolf, Venable LLP counsel and a former U.S. Department of Transportation official who helped develop policies and regulations governing automated vehicles.
But the economic slowdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic likely will cut investments into the AV industry, especially because of uncertain returns on investments, said Scott Corwin, Deloitte Consulting LLP managing director. “We’re at a really critical inflection point around what the cycle of innovation is going to look like here,” said Corwin, who leads the firm’s future of mobility practice.
Part of that innovation is occurring in Florida. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority is providing the Mayo Clinic’s Jacksonville campus with Orlando, Fla.-based Beep Inc. autonomous vehicles that deliver Covid-19 tests to a campus laboratory for analysis. Tests are loaded into coolers in the Beep vehicles and then transported across campus to a laboratory.
“There was some head scratching about how perhaps there might be some opportunity to apply this technology and capability to the way we move our tests,” said Kent Thielen, chief executive officer of Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus. “It’s worked very well.”
Whether autonomous vehicles find a foothold in the delivery business will ultimately be decided by economics and whether consumers will pay for delivery services, said Akshay Singh, PricewaterhouseCoopers US industrial and automotive industries principal. Once the pandemic abates, consumers could abandon delivery services if they determine additional costs aren’t worth it, he said.
A Bellaire, Texas, CVS pharmacy has partnered with Nuro Inc. to deliver prescriptions and other items to customers in three Texas ZIP codes. The service launched Thursday and uses driverless Toyota Prius vehicles, but will replace them with Nuro’s zero-occupant vehicle called the R2, which uses thermal imaging cameras, radar, and ultrasonics for navigation.
During the program’s pilot phase, deliveries will be free. “We are using this pilot program to see how consumers will respond to this service,” said Stephanie Cunha, a CVS spokeswoman.
The 2,500-pound R2, which has a top speed of 25 mph, is the first vehicle to receive a U.S. Department of Transportation exemption to operate on public roads without complying with traditional passenger vehicle requirements
Customers’ identities will be confirmed and, with the R2, they will enter a secure access code for their deliveries, Cunha said. The vehicles are remotely monitored by human operators in the event of crashes or other mishaps, and certain drugs aren’t eligible for remote delivery.
During the pilot phase, each order must begin with a prescription but customers can then add certain health, wellness, and grocery products, Cunha said.