Take the latest VB Survey to share how your company is implementing AI today.

Early on, the pandemic — which passed a grim milestone in the U.S. this week of over 100,000 dead — motivated the shuttering of businesses deemed nonessential out of concern for workers’ well-being. One industry heavily affected was self-driving vehicles, whose operators and developers were forced to pause pilots under guidance from state and local officials. Several companies resumed tests, however, after implementing a series of new precautionary safety protocols. And in something of a bright spot among a torrent of bad news, they’ve repurposed — or plan to repurpose — their vehicles for deliveries to those in need.

Some experts predict the coronavirus outbreak will hasten the adoption of autonomous vehicles for delivery. A study published by CarGurus found that 39% of people won’t use manually driven ride-sharing services post-pandemic for fear of insufficient sanitation. Despite the public’s misgivings about driverless cars and their need for regular disinfection, they promise to minimize the risk of spreading disease because they inherently limit driver-rider contact.

Beep Mobility, which provides autonomous, fully managed mobility solutions like driverless shuttles to private and public communities, tells VentureBeat that it’s ferrying food to frontline workers at the Orlando Veteran Affairs Medical Center and Nemours Children’s Hospital near its headquarters in Lake Nona, Florida. In partnership with real estate developer Tavistock Development and Park Pizza and Brewing Co., a local restaurant, the company says, it’s been able to provide contactless meal delivery to enable health care workers to remain on campus.

Separately, since March 30, Beep has been working with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida to transport COVID-19 tests from a drive-through site to another facility at the hospital for processing. It says the collaboration has provided the Mayo Clinic a “safe and reliable” means of transporting the tests while freeing up workers for more pressing tasks.

“During our pause in service, we at Beep mobilized our team quickly to repurpose our shuttles to help the community in transporting COVID-19 tests to making food deliveries to health care workers on the frontline of this pandemic,” a Beep spokesperson told VentureBeat. “Our goal is to relaunch in June. Since the pandemic, we have … been awarded multiple new contracts to provide autonomous mobility services in several new markets.”

Another autonomous vehicle operator — Optimus Ride — this week announced that three of its vehicles will begin making deliveries at the Yards, a waterfront development in Washington, D.C., beginning this week. From D.C.-area restaurant and brewery Bluejacket, they’ll ferry boxes containing a week’s worth of food and ingredients furnished by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group and the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture to families in need. Recipients are identified by Pathways to Housing, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending homelessness.

Earlier in the year, ​Optimus Ride kicked off a deployment within Paradise Valley Estates​ — a private 80-acre assisted living community located in Fairfield, California — and adapted the program to deliver 50-80 meals a day to residents during the pandemic. It also offers package delivery via autonomous shuttle to the residents, many of whom can no longer congregate in the community’s common areas.

“Despite COVID-19, Optimus Ride has made tremendous progress … We have strongly added a new market vertical in logistics which includes the delivery of prepared meals, groceries, and other types of packages as part of our self-driving system,” the company said. “Optimus Ride is continuing operations during the pandemic currently with a focus on logistics. In fact, we believe the pandemic has accelerated some deployments in our extensive pipeline of clients.”

For its part, Gatik — a startup that moves goods between fulfillment centers to retail stores, distribution centers, and offices with autonomous Ford Transit vans up to 7 days a week, 12 hours a day — plans to expand to Michigan. (In July 2019, it inked a deal with “multiple” retail partners including Walmart for on-demand and scheduled freight transportation.) In collaboration with one of the state’s largest retailers, it says it will operate its trucks, which are equipped with multi-temperature compartments to accommodate fresh food, refrigerated and frozen food, and medical supplies, on predetermined, fixed routes to facilitate online ordering and contactless delivery for residents.

“As a result of COVID-19, Gatik’s solution has never been more important. Retailers are grappling with major logistics challenges and a dramatic rise in online orders. Gatik’s business model and product offerings ensure a resilient supply chain and enhance public health and safety via contactless delivery,” a spokesperson said.

Beep, Optimus Ride, and Gatik aren’t the only autonomous vehicle companies applying their technologies for good during the pandemic. Cruise redeployed its vehicles to deliver meals for the SF-Marin Food Bank and SF New Deal, two food banks serving low-income families in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Hyundai-Aptiv Autonomous Driving Joint Venture, a collaboration between Hyundai and Aptiv to develop driverless vehicle technologies, is using driverless vehicles in Las Vegas to deliver food to families in partnership with the nonprofit Delivery with Dignity. And Nuro is using its shuttles to transport medical supplies around the Event Center in San Mateo and the Sleep Train Arena for people stricken with COVID-19.

Encouragingly, it appears to be only the tip of the iceberg for a technological use case that’s making a difference.

For AI coverage, send news tips to Khari Johnson and Kyle Wiggers — and be sure to subscribe to the AI Weekly newsletter and bookmark our AI Channel.

Thanks for reading,

Kyle Wiggers

AI Staff Writer