Even though we are still in the midst of a pandemic, it is never too early to start planning for the next one.

Of course, we have no way of knowing in what form it will come, but if it is anything like COVID-19, then minimizing contact with others will be one of the keys to containment.

As we have already seen during the current outbreak, technologies, ranging from delivery apps to telemedicine to teleconferencing software, have enabled Americans to more easily socially distance ourselves.

These services have mitigated many risks to a considerable degree. However, emerging automated technologies could help Americans better deal with the next epidemic, while also improving our lives in times of normalcy.

But this will only be achieved if states focus on responsibly reducing burdensome regulations and promoting further research and development.

Highly automated vehicles (HAVs) – sometimes called driverless vehicles even though there’s often a human safety operator – may sound like a thing of the future, but they have been navigating America’s streets for years now in small numbers.

In time, you can expect to see more of these technologies as they are perfected. Indeed, when they finally reach critical mass, they will provide vital services on a massive scale.

Georgia and most of the country are currently under some form of stay-at-home and social distancing orders.

Even so, there are exclusions for essential workers and certain travel, which ensures that there is still ample interpersonal contact. This can be perilous, but greater reliance on HAVs could reduce these dangers in the future.

It’s hard to predict what a world with widespread HAV usage might look like, but companies are making great strides in advancing the technology and testing their products in many states.

To a limited degree, HAVs are delivering medical supplies in Florida, will soon deliver groceries in parts of CaliforniaAtlanta approved highly automated semi-truck testing, and ridesharing companies are giving HAVs a try too.

If these products truly become automated and do not need an in-vehicle safety operator, then they will be a godsend in times of pandemics, lessening instances of person-to-person contact and, in turn, reducing the spread of disease.

Consider this: Even in the face of a dangerous pandemic, there are many reasons to venture into public – going grocery shopping, visiting the doctor’s office, and going to work.

But if these and other HAV services are implemented, then it could remove a number of instances of interpersonal contact. This would inhibit the chain of viral or bacterial transmission – thus, becoming key in the fight against outbreaks.

In fact, one day, on a much more widespread scale, autonomous vehicles might be able to deliver groceries and medical supplies to people’s homes; taxis or rideshare companies may offer specialized autonomous trips for the elderly or immunocompromised, which make up around 17 percent and three percent of the population, respectively; and many long-haul shipping trucks may become autonomous too – ensuring that supply chains remain intact even in times of emergency. Interestingly, some have suggested that this can be done in a way that doesn’t sacrifice any jobs.

Even in times of normalcy, HAVs promise to provide invaluable benefits. Currently, human error is responsible for around 94 percent of vehicular accidents.

But it stands to reason that once HAV technology reaches its potential, many of these accidents will become a thing of the past, given that HAVs don’t drive drunk, text and drive, etc.

Further, traffic will surely improve as well. First, with more HAVs on the road, there’d be fewer crashes and subsequently less congestion and rubbernecking.

Second, a study suggested that if as little as five percent of vehicles on the road were replaced with HAVs, then that would substantially curtail the frequency and intensity of phantom traffic jams. These occur when the number of vehicles on roads reach and/or exceed maximum capacity.

The result is the maddening stop-and-go driving patterns – even though there’s no accident or road construction – that we all know too well. However, these patterns stem from human behavior, but HAVs could make them a thing of the past.

Highly automated technologies can contribute much to society. Yet, they will only reach their potential if local, state, and federal governments facilitate permissive regulatory environments that promote further testing and innovation.

Without this, development will be stymied, and we will pay the price. Unfortunately, many states have gone the way of overregulating HAVs, which doesn’t bode well for their future.

Nevertheless, Georgia has largely taken a more reasonable regulatory approach, and lawmakers need to stay the course. After all, if there is one thing that we’ve learned from the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s that we should have been better prepared. HAVs may not be the unsung hero of the current pandemic, but they can be for the next one.

Featured Publications