Pandemics, like Coronavirus, and our RoboTaxi-driven autonomous future

The big news right now is the Coronavirus outbreak that began in China last fall. CoVID-19 as it is more formally known is a relatively highly infectious disease, that the human population has no immunity against, and a relatively high (2%) mortality rate. Given those figures, governments around the world are taking extreme measures to contain spread of the virus hoping to delay a large outbreak. There is potential for a catastrophic epidemic – for every 100 million people who fall ill to this disease, if the mortality rate stays the same, means 2 million deaths.

What does this have to do with clean energy and green transportation and electric vehicles? What if a disease like this were to strike 10-15 years from now when our cities are full of fleets of autonomous vehicles acting as RoboTaxi’s? How will we deal with that future? But first we need to take a look at the current context.

Governments are taking actions that, in other contexts, would seem like a dictatorship and a human rights violation. In fact I’m having a hard time imagining how the actions taken in other countries would be adopted in the USA without a fight.

There is a need to perform mass surveillance and take medical samples from basically everyone. In China, the government instituted what amounts to a very tight martial law, with extremely restricted freedom of movement. In South Korea, reports are that the government is implementing a plan to test hundreds of thousands of people for Coronavirus, by stopping them in the street and taking samples. In other countries all public meetings have been canceled, schools are closing (and teaching happening via the Internet), and more.

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Our fellow Americans, the ones who are so freedom-loving that they carry guns around at all times because they fear government overreach, would surely see that sort of action as a big brother invasion. The country is already predisposed to fear the FEMA Camps that many expect will be used to institute a New World Order of dictatorial rule.

In any case it seems there is a legitimate need to test large numbers of people. The data is needed in order to provision appropriate medical care to deal with coronavirus (CoVID-19).

The issue is that medical authorities are not yet clear on how this disease spreads. For example when an infected person coughs or sneezes, do they spray contaminated stuff, how far, and how long does that stuff remain viable outside the host body? They’ve seen clusters of Coronavirus infection because of public meetings like church gatherings, or business conferences. Maybe the virus can spread just by breathing in the air breathed out by an infected person?

It’s theoretically possible an infectious disease will exist which can spread by occupying a place which was previously occupied by an infected person. Maybe the Coronavirus fits that definition, maybe it doesn’t, but it is theoretically possible.

Infectious diseases and Autonomous self-driving Robo Taxi’s

Here’s where we get to an issue that makes sense for The Long Tail Pipe. How would such a disease affect us in the future when autonomous self-driving vehicles are driving us around town?

It’s possible this specific disease will fizzle out in a couple weeks and everything will return to normal. But we can be sure there will be other diseases with similar characteristics in the future. In recent years there were outbreaks of SARS, MERS, and Ebola that risked a similar Pandemic status. Therefore CoVID-19 won’t be the last.

Every locale where humans gather and are exposed to each other is a potential vector for spreading disease. That’s why health authorities are closing schools and public meetings.

The car companies and others are eager to implement a new transportation vision. Instead of individually owned cars, there will be vast fleets of autonomous, self-driving, vehicles to transport us around. We’d call up a RoboTaxi using a smart-phone app, the RoboTaxi drives itself to us, and takes us to our destination.

It’d be kind of like Uber or Lyft but without the human driver demanding benefits and a livable wage.

The advantage over normal mass transit is that the RoboTaxi would take you directly to the destination, whereas with a bus and light rail system you probably have to take multiple vehicles. That makes RoboTaxi services like owning a car, without the hassle of ownership, and it makes them like regular taxi’s, but without the taxi driver, and like ride sharing vehicles, but without the human driver.

Viewed from a different perspective, this means each city will be served by a fleet of vehicles flitting around carrying people from place to place. Each vehicle might be used by dozens of people per day. Importantly, there won’t be a human on board whose job is operating and caring for the vehicle. How will the vehicle be kept clean?

In other words each of the Robo Taxi’s will be a shared space that’s exposed to dozens of people a day. They will be potential vectors for spreading disease, yes?

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To take care of this, the automakers should install sensors. Surely it’s not a human rights violation to take air samples while people are being transported in a RoboTaxi? Therefore, the vehicle could detect various substances, from disease pathogens to contraband.

There are all kinds of responses that could be programmed into the vehicle from driving to a police station, or to a hospital, or ejecting passengers. But will the manufacturers think about this and design appropriately?

It’s more likely for this issue to be ignored, since the manufacturer might not want to pay the cost for such monitoring. Therefore the autonomous fleet of the future would act as a vector for spreading disease … or else ..

Another scenario is that the government recognizes the role of Robo Taxi’s for spreading disease. Therefore during a pandemic those vehicles might be banned from use. In that scenario, how will humanity transport itself from place to place if we’ve all given up individual car ownership?

Bottom line has to do with the future transportation system offering new vectors through which to propagate the diseases of the future. Will we understand and take care of this issue in time?

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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