Experts Stress Public Trust in AV Tech as E-Commerce Rises

Nuro R2 vehicle
Nuro's R2 vehicle has been piloted for a grocery delivery program in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Nathan Lindstrom)

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As the coronavirus pandemic prompts people to shop from their homes and rely on contactless delivery services, gaining public trust in automated vehicle technology remains essential, experts said.

Matthew Lipka, head of policy at robotics company Nuro, said gaining public trust, particularly through use of AV systems, is vital. He said an approachable-looking vehicle that delivers a pizza to someone’s curb would leave a positive impression and help that person gain familiarity with the technology. Nuro specializes in deploying autonomous vehicles for last-mile delivery services.

“I think that’s really, really critical,” Lipka said during a webinar hosted by the Eno Center for Transportation on Sept. 10. “We need to get out there and talk to people and introduce them to the technology. I think delivery technology is a way of building that public trust.”

Alia Verloes, market leader in new mobility for North America at Steer, stressed the importance of community outreach and engagement, which can help with addressing long-term concerns and assisting during the pandemic. Steer is a consulting group that focuses on infrastructure and transportation.

“Let’s involve communities at the local level [and] county level to better understand the specific concerns,” Verloes said. “Outreach means many things, but here it’s about listening.”

Verloes also said the pandemic has resulted in a “greater appetite” for delivery services. Her presentation indicated e-commerce has experienced growth in sectors such as grocery shopping; however, it is still too early to determine if such trends will be permanent.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Freight Strategic Plan, released Sept. 3, e-commerce shopping habits were increasing rapidly before the pandemic struck. U.S. Census Bureau data indicates e-commerce sales increased 16.7% between the fourth quarters of 2018 and 2019.

AV technology has the potential to save lives and time, Verloes said. She said a gradual shift to AV deployment could help the traveling public avoid 244,000 injury-causing road crashes between 2025 and 2035. During this same window, some 21 billion hours of driving for shopping and errand purposes could be saved.

R2 Specifications Infographic by Transport Topics on Scribd

Lipka noted that automated vehicles that can’t accommodate people do not require the design considerations associated with passenger vehicles, such as those pertaining to occupant comfort and safety. He used the example of Nuro’s R2 vehicle, which is specifically designed to transport goods and has been piloted for a grocery delivery program in Scottsdale, Ariz. Because the vehicle can’t hold passengers, Lipka said it can stop abruptly without the concern of giving an occupant whiplash.

Additionally, Lipka pointed out that ground-based AV systems have carrying capabilities that other technologies, such as drones, lack. For example, he said drones can save the day by delivering anti-venom for snakebites, but can’t manage a shopper’s two gallons of milk.

He also said the transition to a fleet of automated delivery vehicles will need to be a deliberate one, since the systems need to operate at “automotive-grade reliability.”

“[It’s] not like scooters, where you’re just going to wake up one morning, and there’s 1,000 delivery robots on your street,” Lipka said.

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