COVID-19 is increasingly acting as a catalyst for society to explore ways of functioning without physical movement. Technology is allowing people to talk without meeting, and permitting deliveries without drivers.

Virtual communication tools are being used to work around social distancing, self-isolation, suspension of flights, and lockdowns. Remote communication technology is not only being used for work purposes but also to allow education to continue during school closures and for people to remain socially connected through video calls.

We think more advanced remote communications using virtual reality will also be catalysed by the coronavirus response, replacing the value in physical transportation for work and play, in many instances.

But despite advances in remote communication, people still need essentials like food and medication, and non-essential consumer goods. COVID-19 has thus driven demand for e-commerce physical delivery networks from online supermarket deliveries and internet retailers.

Deliveries still bring infection risks to otherwise isolated customers and to couriers, however. Autonomous vehicles offer a ‘touchless’ solution. And such vehicles can transport people as well as deliver physical goods.

We think this trend will continue after the current crisis has eased, but city streets vacated because of the virus offer ideal testing conditions. Autonomous vehicles can disrupt society, industry and the economy but testing requires considerable road-time.

Mainland China has already seen increased activity with one Beijing-based urban robo-delivery-trucks company seeing a surge in orders and using routes in locked-down areas to distribute disinfection services and deliver food to health workers.

First published 26 March 2020.

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