Self-Driving Vehicle Systems in a Post COVID-19 World

April 3, 2020

After COVID-19, it becomes even more of an imperative to reach the driverless milestone.

The COVID-19 crisis has created tremendous heartache and suffering in the loss of human lives as well as the radical disruption of just about every aspect of everyday life. Today, approximately half of the world and the majority of the U.S. is currently under some form of lockdown due to the spread of COVID-19. Recommendations by infectious disease experts tend to agree that the tools at our disposal to combat this virus are testing, social distancing, and the closure of schools, businesses, and transportation networks while the world races to develop a vaccine.

Undoubtedly, there will be more lockdowns as the virus spreads to the rest of America. As a result, a number of media outlets have taken chilling drone footage of empty city streets. These powerful moving pictures show just a fraction of the activity we would normally see. It's a strange juxtaposition of handfuls of people and vehicles roaming the streets while hundreds of millions are staying at home. The hoarding of toilet paper, bread, milk, and eggs at grocery stores in the early days of the outbreak has now translated to an exponential demand for logistical services and a slew of others for delivery of prepared foods, groceries, and other goods. Companies that have traditionally focused on this will likely do well, but the pressure test is now on for the viability and efficacy of the mobility networks that complement these platforms.

Optimus Ride was conceived originally as a people-moving autonomous platform with a focus on SAE Level 4 geofenced markets. Our belief over five years ago was that Level 5 autonomy – that is the ability to drive fully autonomously in every possible environment and condition – is decades away and would require astronomical investments before being commercially viable due to the technological complexities required to solve for unlimited use cases. Our development strategy has been to design our technologies for structured environments where the speed and navigation complexity is manageable and safe. These geofenced markets include industrial parks, corporate and academic campuses, smart cities, city zones, airports, ports, military bases, master planned communities, retirement communities and so on. Over time, our systems apply AI to learn, improve, and expand the Operating Design Domain (ODD) to more complex environments. Ultimately, we'd like our vehicles to be able to drive fully autonomously (no operators on board) from Times Square to Harvard Square during a snowstorm.

Our strategy has proven to be highly tractable, as Optimus Ride is one of the first commercially operational self-driving technology companies in the world, with deployments in MA, CA, VA and NY. While our initial focus has been on moving passengers, we also developed an initial pilot for self-driving delivery of pharmaceuticals. Our goal at the time was to identify efficiency opportunities during off-peak hours, but in doing so we found a strong and positive response, particularly from our senior community members. With this feedback, we have been exploring programs with other partners, including food delivery at the Brooklyn Navy Yard within their 300-acre industrial park. These experiences have been vital to our ability for adapting our platforms to different use cases and changing situations.

Along with many other companies and institutions, we have been closely monitoring the pandemic from its early days through its global spread. In keeping with guidance from health and state officials, we transitioned the company from optional work-from-home to mandatory. On Monday, March 15th, we mutually decided with our partners to pause passenger operations in all of our sites, including the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Halley Rise in Reston, VA (with Brookfield Properties), Paradise Valley Estates (PVE) in Fairfield, CA, and the Boston Seaport District. It was the responsible thing to do considering the situation.

After pausing operations at PVE, a 60+ Life Plan Community, we received an urgent request from their management to assist with evening meal delivery as residents were no longer allowed to congregate in the dining hall. Our team sprang into action, and after some rapid planning, preparation and taking all possible precautions, we adapted our services for meal delivery. On that evening we delivered 46 meals, and since then have continued delivering 50-80 meals per day.

The response from the PVE community has been tremendous, with community members showing appreciation ranging from hand written notes, cards, signs, and teddy bears, to the following message from PVE management:

"Thank you so much for supporting our community in this ever changing and challenging time. Your guys were here yesterday and more than happy to help. We are very thankful for you all and for this partnership!"

It is responses like these that have made our team feel our work is more meaningful than ever, and we will continue with our meal deliveries for PVE while the situation is still ongoing.  

Optimus Ride recently received a request from the Mayor's Office of Boston seeking to consider mobility alternatives for medical workers for numerous hospitals in the city. We have partnered with the City of Boston multiple times, even before the formation of Optimus Ride, when MIT was advising the city on how to create a self-driving "Zone" to enable companies to set operations to test and commercialize self-driving systems. Boston became a critical champion for catalyzing state regulations with the Governor's office as well as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) and Massachusetts Port Authority (MassPort) to foster innovation in our state. While plans are still being developed, we are prepared to assist the city to move passengers and goods during this state of emergency.

The pandemic is a challenge to rapidly iterate on autonomy for logistical services, optimize our passenger operations, and future-proof ourself-driving systems by continuing to integrate resilience in our engineering and operations platforms. Building resiliency requires both real-time learning as well as architecting flexibility in the overall self-driving system. When we develop hardware and software for our system, we must consider both safety and comfort. Safety is paramount, and on top of that, nobody wants a ride that feels like a roller coaster, no matter how safe it is. Our vehicles take into account accelerations and decelerations to the human body, and track comfort related metrics in order to achieve a smooth and comfortable ride experience. This same approach to safety and comfort for passenger movement also results in a system well-suited for moving goods - if it's a smooth ride for a human body, then it's also a smooth ride for medicines or a pizza. Additionally, as we develop our technology for different use cases, we architect it to be adaptable to a variety of platform features, such as varying powertrains, passenger capacity, delivery storage systems, and more.

Self-driving technology systems have a historic opportunity to address mobility and logistical issues both during and after the pandemic. While the vast majority of the general population is in work-from-home mode, the list of essential personnel during a pandemic is long. It includes personnel from healthcare/public health/human services, law enforcement, public safety, first responders, food and agriculture, energy, waste and wastewater, transportation and logistics, public works, communications and information technology, critical manufacturing, hazardous materials, financial services, chemical, defense industrial base, and other community-based essential functions and government operations. Thus, it is critical for self-driving technology companies to accelerate development of their systems.

After COVID-19, it becomes even more of an imperative to reach the driverless milestone. Today, there are virtually zero self-driving technology companies that have reached this industry-wide goal. Optimus is on the verge of achieving this given our world-class engineering team and our geofenced strategy model which allows us to more safely and in a timely manner move to a fully driverless system operation with remote monitoring. The world is waiting.

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