Fans of autonomous vehicles have long been telling us that they are the next big thing in mobility. Now a devastating global pandemic has given them a chance to prove it. The result is quite unexpected: faced with the continual threat of infection, front-line workers in China have turned to self-driving cars for protection.
Neolix, a Chinese self-driving delivery start-up, has been using fleets of self-driving vans to deliver medical supplies and food to areas of the country hardest hit by COVID-19, including the epicentre in Wuhan. The vehicles have also been used to disinfect city streets. The action proved highly successful: demand surged and the company received orders for more than 200 vans in the first two months.
The event didn’t go unnoticed by the Chinese government. After seeing how autonomous technologies can help in a health crisis, the government offered to subsidise buyers with 60% off the price tag. Neolix has now upped projected sales to 1000 vans for the year.
Sceptics of autonomous driving will point to the empty streets, totally cleared of traffic during the period of confinement. We will have to wait a few more months to see how these vans handle the chaos of urban traffic.