COVID-19 To Climate Change: How Zero-Emission AVs Could Help Respond To Our Next Global Crisis

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by Rob Grant

The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed hardship on multiple fronts, from public health to a looming economic crisis. What’s more, wildfire season has already started in California and hurricane season looms over the Southeast. While communities have been reeling from the trauma and loss of this pandemic, many communities could face an additional complicating threat.

As we grapple with the potential reality of compound crises, each extracting significant tolls, now is the time to examine how an emerging technology like autonomous vehicles (AV) can help respond to and mitigate this and future crises.

Image courtesy Cruise

The driving force behind the AV industry has traditionally been the technology’s potential for improving road safety. However, since the outbreak of COVID-19, the pandemic has broadened that purpose to include helping to ensure the safety of our communities during a crisis. AVs have been supporting local community organizations with thousands of contact-less meal and grocery deliveries and offering medical and goods delivery.

While the COVID-19 outbreak may have caught many of us by surprise, we can anticipate the next potential crises on the horizon: wildfires, droughts, and other emergencies that are spurred by climate change. As this pandemic has shown, our communities will need all hands on deck to both respond to, and recover from, such disasters.

Cruise autonomous shuttle.

Autonomous vehicle companies can and should be pursuing research and development today that could enable our AV fleets to be important tools in moments of crisis. It is crucially important as well that we are pursuing AV crisis relief models that don’t exacerbate existing problems within the transportation sector, especially in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and our carbon footprint. We must find ways to deliver essential items and medical aid during a crisis while limiting human contact and curtailing pollution caused by combustion engines. Zero-emission autonomous vehicles could be a big part of the solution.

Imagine the possibilities: If another widespread pandemic was to occur, zero-emission AVs could be transformed into drive-by testing centers or medical “tents” to limit human contact while also serving in the fundamental role of expanding delivery options for critical goods and services without worsening air quality. When operated as a fleet, these benefits could efficiently scale. Centrally managed and operated electric AVs present an opportunity to implement rigorous hygienic and safety protocols that other modes may not offer.

Now imagine how zero-emission AVs could support communities. In the event of a natural disaster. All-electric AVs can get people out of danger, deliver resources, and help medical shelters or community centers get power back through innovative battery storage solutions. In Northern California, we could envision a future where zero-emission autonomous vehicles both deliver supplies and restore power to vulnerable communities during wildfire season — all while keeping people and first responders safe. Municipal public and private electric vehicle charging infrastructure, powered by solar microgrids in close proximity to our state’s wildfire areas, could be connected to ensure services are automated and self-sustaining.

To harness this potential, we need to create an environment that allows emerging, sustainable technology like zero-emission AVs to continue to consistently test, advance and succeed. California is a great example of how this can work. Well over a decade ago, former Governor Schwarzenegger pushed for extensive clean energy research and enacted a transformative cap-and-trade program that is reducing greenhouse emissions and has propelled job creation in new industries. Now, leaders in California should be commended for already making the case of how expanding green jobs is key to boosting our economic recovery, particularly in our most vulnerable communities who have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

Specifically focusing on green jobs could position communities to be more resilient, improve air quality, and create energy savings for residents and businesses. These investments could take the form of green job training and education programs covering the installation, maintenance and repair of electric vehicles and solar panels. In addition, a transition to cleaner fleets and more sustainable transportation could be encouraged through incentives for individuals and businesses who want to reduce their carbon footprint. The end result? The renaissance of an entire job sector catalyzed around sustainability and resiliency for tomorrow’s transportation network.

Today we’re faced with a choice. The latest study showing how COVID-19 has affected global air quality helps illustrate the balance: While global emissions have fallen by 17%, the most significant decline in carbon emissions since World War II, researchers expect that the outcome is temporary given that the transportation sector has been largely on pause. But positive changes in our environment and air quality do not have to be temporary.

Even in the darkest of times in this pandemic, we can see what’s possible. If we are to reach our full potential, our focus as a nation has to shift and embrace new technologies like zero-emission AVs. As we consider the best ways to respond to COVID-19, both industry and the public sector must prioritize and invest in the bulwark of innovations that can also help us tackle climate change.

Rob Grant is the Vice President of Global Government Affairs at Cruise, where he spearheads Cruise’s legislative and policy priorities throughout the U.S and abroad.

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