If there is anything “lucky” about the deadly coronavirus outbreak marching its way across the world, it could be the timing. At at time when human-to-human interactions, especially in quarantined areas, need to be limited, we actually live in a world where driverless delivery vehicles and robots aren’t science fiction, but could actually be a viable means to supply delivery.
In Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus which is currently on lockdown, online grocery shopping has been a lifeline for those forced to stay home. Even here in the U.S. where no large-scale quarantines are in place, the New York-based online grocer FreshDirect has attributed a spike in sales to media coverage around COVID-19.
But in both of those scenarios, you still have human drivers bringing food to human customers. In China, they’ve implemented a contactless method for delivery wherein the delivery person and the consumer remain ten feet apart from each other, but there is still a human putting themselves at risk to feed another human.
Given that there are a host of startups working on self-driving delivery technology, we at The Spoon were wondering if and when any of them would raise their hand to help out in the efforts to combat the effects of the coronavirus.
Today, Udelv, which makes self-driving and tele-operated delivery vans, made such a move, and on Twitter announced that it was ready to pitch in.
At first, this may seem like some mercenary Silicon Valley grab for press attention amidst a humanitarian crisis. But two things can be true at the same time.
To find out more about Udelv’s intentions, I spoke with its CEO, Daniel Laury, by phone today. He explained that his company’s delivery trucks could be useful in quarantine situations such as the one in Wuhan because they can be tele-operated. There is still someone driving the delivery van, they are just housed in a remote location. Vans could be sent in to deliver food, medicine or other supplies without putting a human driver at risk.
Additionally, Udelv trucks are built with customizable individual cargo compartments. Each order has its own delivery cubby that is unlocked with user’s phone when it arrives. So a grocery route could have multiple stops with people only able to access their own orders.
Asked if he would charge for the use of Udelv’s services, Laury told me “This is done with the best intention. I’m not charging. I’m not going to make money on this.”
In talking with him, it seemed like Laury saw what was going on and saw that his company might be able to help. He hasn’t worked through all of the details yet; for example, rules around autonomous vehicles on public roads have only recently been enacted here in the US, though I imagine there could exceptions made for extreme quarantine situations. And Laury doesn’t have a particular sanitization workflow in mind. It’s one thing to not have a human driver, but if you have an infected person touching or coughing at the inside of a cargo hold, that cargo hold will need some kind of scrub down.
“We’re expert in autonomous trucking, not viruses,” Laury told me. He considers Udelv’s truck just another tool that could be used to help fight the outbreak. Udelv would provide vans to a government agency like the CDC, and they would institute proper sterilization procedures. His company would just make sure supplies gets from point A to B.
So far Udelv has not been contacted by any government agencies either at home or abroad. Udelv doesn’t even operate in China, but Laury said he’s happy to put some vans on a boat if they want. “I don’t know anyone at the CDC or the administration that I can contact directly,” Laury said. “It’s one of the reasons I put out this tweet. Maybe it’s picked up by someone who is in charge.”
If someone in charge is reading, perhaps you can take look at how autonomous vehicles might be able to help.