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Robotaxis Need Disinfectant Systems

Sam Abuelsamid
Mar 18, 2020

Smart Car 2

As the 2020 coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the globe, businesses of all kind are doing their part to help the containment effort. Everywhere people would normally congregate, from stores to movie theaters to aircraft, is getting more frequent cleanings. But we know this won’t be the last such pandemic and probably not even the worst. In the coming years, if we manage to deploy automated robotaxi services, how will we prevent them from becoming a disease vector?

Controlling What Is Shared in a Shared Automated Vehicle

Among the goals of robotaxis is to get commuters to give up their personal vehicles in favor of using shared automated vehicles. This reduces the total number of vehicles on urban streets and the need for space to park them. Those shared vehicles would have a much higher use rate than personal vehicles. But they would also have dozens or even hundreds of people getting in and out every day. If one or a few of those riders is ill, a cough or used tissue could be enough to contaminate the space for everyone that follows.

Designers of robotaxis are already thinking about situations such as a passenger throwing up, and are planning to include cameras and other sensors to detect when a vehicle needs cleaning. In these cases, the vehicle might come back to a depot for service before going back on the streets.

Today, that task is handled by the drivers in taxi and ride-hail services. They are ever present and they know if a cleanup is needed. But this awareness applies only for visually obvious cases such as motion sickness. When someone with a contagious disease gets in the vehicle, it’s not always so obvious. That’s why May Mobility, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based startup developing automated shuttles, has suspended its services. The May shuttles have safety operators on board and the company doesn’t want their employees or riders getting sick.

Unfortunately, Waymo isn’t being quite so thoughtful with its safety drivers and riders on its Waymo One service in Arizona. While other full-time Waymo employees are being encouraged to work remotely during the outbreak, the drivers work for a contract vendor and must continue working. They are also being discouraged from cancelling rides during this outbreak.

Designing for Disruption

But what about when no one is driving? Cameras and other sensors can detect dirt, smoking, and even vomit. However, it will be difficult to determine from sensors if the interior of a vehicle has been contaminated with a virus or bacteria. Even in a normal year, millions of people around the world get sick with influenza. Returning to base for decontamination after every ride is not practical.

Now is the time for engineers and designers to consider possible solutions. Interior surfaces of robotaxis, as well as other types of transit vehicles, can and should have antimicrobial coatings. This measure helps cut the spread of bacterial illness, but those coatings have no effect on viruses. Another possible solution is ultraviolet (UV) emitters in the vehicle. UV radiation between 200 nm and 400 nm is very effective at destroying bacteria and viruses. It is commonly used in devices designed for disinfecting everything from phones to toothbrushes. Perhaps future robotaxis will be equipped with UV systems that flash the interior of robotaxis every time passengers get out to ensure nothing is left behind.

There may be other solutions as well. Whatever the answer, now is the time to be searching for it—before the next pandemic strikes.