Autonomous Transportation in a Post-Pandemic World: A Conversation with Financial Times and Axios

In just a few months, COVID-19 has rocked the economy and changed our relationships with transportation, bringing air travel, ride-sharing and daily commutes to a screeching halt. At Mission North, our work with Transportation and Logistics companies that are navigating these changes has led us to wonder: what does the future hold for autonomous transportation, and how has the pandemic changed it?

On June 24, Axios transportation correspondent Joann Muller and Financial Times San Francisco correspondent Patrick McGee joined us for a conversation about what that future looks like. Both are deeply familiar with this topic; Patrick has covered transportation in both Germany and the U.S., and Joann is the editor of Axios Navigate, a weekly newsletter on the future of transportation. 

Our conversation was expansive, covering everything from how autonomy will impact social equity to whether we should expect more consolidation in the transportation industry. Attendees were eager to hear Patrick’s and Joann’s perspectives on how autonomous transportation in the U.S. looks different from the rest of the world, the impact of the pandemic on autonomous delivery and what they look for in a great story. Here are a few insights from our discussion, edited for length and clarity.

The pandemic may revolutionize autonomy in delivery

Shelter-in-place orders have led people to rely on delivery for food, medicine and household products more than ever before. With that change, and the fact that people are traveling far less than before, transportation companies are re-evaluating the best use for their autonomous tech. Delivery has proven to be a potential business model for autonomous transportation and an area where the big players are turning to both test and support. 

Joann pointed out that most companies’ assumption that they’d start with robo-taxi services and follow with delivery “is now flipped on its head,” adding that she expects automation in delivery to increase faster than it otherwise would have. 

Most companies’ assumption that they’d start with robo-taxi services and follow with delivery “is now flipped on its head.”

AV companies are under the microscope to crystallize their business plans as funding slows down

Urban transportation – the problem we most often think of autonomous vehicles solving – is also the most challenging one, Patrick noted. With the pandemic’s economic crunch and new funding drying up, startups that once dominated the space are under intense pressure to show how they’ll make money. Even Waymo, Joann pointed out, is still operating in Phoenix with a small number of users and may be feeling more urgency than ever before to develop a long-term business model. They both agreed that most of these companies are still searching for a business model for their autonomous transportation technology, and it’s still unclear if autonomous robotaxis will take off.

The jury is still out on autonomy’s role in reducing or perpetuating inequality

COVID-19 has exacerbated long-standing inequalities in our society. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to reduce inequality by making travel more accessible and affordable. But Joann notes that how these services are rolled out – and for whom – will determine whether that actually happens. She urges AV companies to consider: “What problem are we trying to solve? Are we trying to help people who don’t have transportation get to where they’re going?”

“What problem are we trying to solve? Are we trying to help people who don’t have transportation get to where they’re going?”

Regulation will be the biggest barrier to autonomous flight

Flying vehicles, especially drones, have shown promise in delivering medicine and supplies in other parts of the world. For example, Zipline has been running drone deliveries to hospitals in Rwanda and Ghana for several years. While companies working on autonomous ground vehicles face a huge technical challenge, Patrick speculated that U.S. regulation will be the bigger obstacle for those working on autonomous flight. Still, he thinks it has potential to revolutionize how we travel even more than self-driving cars.

On what makes a great transportation story

We wrapped up our discussion by hearing what Patrick and Joann look for to write an interesting and nuanced transportation story. Both agreed they’re most interested in the big picture: Patrick loves to hear perspectives on the 20,000-foot view of the industry and how things have changed since a few months or years ago, while Joann looks for “the big ideas that are shaping transportation” through the lens of policy, tech and business.

Big thanks to Joann, Patrick and our attendees for the engaging discussion. We’ll see you on the road!