Driverless cars, Pret-a-Manger and COVID-19: a plea for technological liberalism

Connor Axiotes

June 23, 2020

From Elon Musk’s sleek Teslas to Google’s chunky Waymo Fleet, autonomous vehicles (AVs) are ostensibly our future mode of transport. Only Luddites will continue to drive themselves. Myself, perhaps, included. 

Picture yourself being driven to work, with no one else in the car, tweeting aggressively, whilst simultaneously uploading an Instagram story on your profile exclaiming: “Wow! I am so much more productive now I don’t have to drive,” tucking into your [insert choice of] Pret-a-Manger with both hands.

This future seems both imminent yet significantly distant. It’s potential advantages, though, are as numerous as they are increasingly realistic. In a new book on market-based environmentalism from the British Conservation Alliance and the Austrian Economics Center, Green Market Revolution, I have written a chapter on how technology and in particular artificial intelligence can bring about environmental betterment. AVs can benefit the natural world in a myriad of ways, too.

By driving more efficiently as a result of their onboard autonomous navigation systems, they can complete the same journeys on much less power. The transition from conventional fossil-fuelled vehicles to AVs will also ensure the reduction of harmful emissions. By increasing the proportion of those journey-making individuals ride-sharing and carpooling, fewer rides are taken per vehicle. 

However, under the current circumstances, our aim is surely to minimise the number of people in each vehicle rather than increasing it, in order to quell the transmission of the novel coronavirus. Is this an issue for those pesky, people-cramming AVs? Alas, no! AVs and the tasks for which they are used are very adaptable.

In fact, AVs can actually limit human contact if necessary through AV-facilitated contactless transport and delivery of both individuals and goods. This decreases the likelihood of human contact and thus the spread of the disease.

AVs could transport key workers and the vulnerable elderly to and from work and the hospital while ensuring that key deliveries, such as those of the new Covid-19 drug Dexamethasone, are all doable without the aid of a human driver. This reduces human interaction and the potential for the transmission of disease therefore decreases. Thus, the increased provision and use of AVs, sooner rather than later, could help to decrease deaths from Covid-19 in the UK.

As per the End of Driving report, there are two forms of AV market that could come to pass. The first would consist of largely privately-owned AVs and the second of a “RoboFleet” of robo-taxis and robo-shuttles. I believe that these markets working in tandem would have the potential to provide significant assistance in the battle against Covid-19. Countries like China and the US have already begun to realise this particular benefit of the imminent rollout of AVs.

MIT’s Technology Review finds that in China, AVs have “proved to be essential in the fight against the pandemic, easing the burden of Covid-19 by transporting necessary medical supplies and food […] and disinfecting hospitals and public surfaces to reduce the spread of coronavirus.” Baidu, a leading Chinese AV firm, has released 104 driverless vehicles in 17 cities across the country to help to perform important tasks, from cleaning and disinfecting to general deliveries, at one point providing daily food deliveries that helped feed over 100 frontline staff.

In the US, Nuro became the second company in California to receive a permit to operate a driverless vehicle on public roads, delivering medical supplies to a hospital in Sacramento and in San Mateo County.

So how can the UK speed up AV provision? 

A dictum of permissionless innovation, wherein entrepreneurs and innovators are left alone in a technologically liberal environment to experiment with AV and other transformative technologies, would be hugely advantageous to the UK. It could boost productivity and increase the likelihood of coming across inventions which could help bring about an immediate reduction of the rate of Covid-19 infections.

Imagine a scenario in which the provision of AVs had arrived in the UK earlier. Autonomous vehicles could have saved thousands of otherwise tragically lost lives to a highly infectious disease. This would not put a stop to the spread of Covid-19 alone, but had we perfected this technology earlier, one can only imagine the help it could have brought. Granted, there are some positive signs. For example, from Coventry to Birmingham, work is beginning on a 300-kilometre AV route. 

Heed this advice: let’s be equipped with an even more diverse array of technological advancements next time we face such a vicious foe. 


Written by Connor Axiotes

Connor Axiotes is deputy editor of 1828 and a policy analyst at the British Conservation Alliance.


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