The Fence

Greg Giraud on COVID-19 and transport

Greg Giraud
The easy home office views of EasyMile's Greg Giraud

Greg Giraud is the Managing Director at EasyMile Australia & NZ, a pioneer in autonomous vehicle technology and smart mobility solutions, developing software to automate transportation in cities, airports, corporations, business parks, and universities.

Prior to his role at EasyMile, Greg was GM of Hertz’s Car Share Operations, and back in 2010 and 2011 was Membership Manager at the Flexicar car-sharing service.

What are the main effects or changes due to COVID-19 that you’re seeing right now in transport?

At EasyMile, we focus on shared mobility solutions that feed into and complement the transit network, and our autonomous shuttles were no exception to COVID-19 measures applied to public transport.

Most of our projects were suspended globally including in our region; they are now resuming in other parts of the world like in Germany or the US, with due considerations given to the safety of our passengers and operators in term of disinfecting, social distancing and appropriate PPE.

To an extent the pandemic was a blessing in disguise from a technology innovation perspective: about 75% of our workforce focuses on R&D and they do not need live projects or operations to continue their work – to the contrary, we have recruited R&D talents at an accelerated pace in the past 6 months and we were able to speed up the development of new features and stay on track with our technology roadmap.

From an autonomous vehicle industry perspective, the pandemic provided an opportunity to showcase AV as a solution to some of the new challenges the crisis created; new use cases emerged such as using AVs for disinfecting the streets, as it was the case in China, where AVs in general have become more widely used thanks to the pandemic, and we have also seen AV companies pivoting into food and essentials transport and delivery: for instance EasyMile has been delivering food between a food distribution centre and a food bank in a Denver precinct in the US.

As a transport user myself, my background is in carsharing and I live car-free by choice We’re based in Adelaide, which is one of only two capital cities with public e-scooter services and I had been an avid user of these until the crisis hit – so I’ve been walking a lot more!

What changes would you like to see in the transport sector when the world rights itself post-pandemic?

Transport is the backbone of our economies and the pandemic outlined some of the more obvious benefits of autonomous vehicles for large scale emergencies – beyond the current health crisis, we could see similar challenges from large disasters such as a climate catastrophe, a nuclear disaster or a terrorist attack such as 9/11; the world has come to the realisation that although we may be in confinement, mobility must be maintained, goods and services must be manufactured and delivered especially when it comes to critical and emergency workers and tasks.

They say we should not let a crisis go to waste and the pandemic has created new opportunities for the autonomous vehicle industry as we’ve seen in a country like China; what I’d like to see is for this momentum to continue and for the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles to fast-track and come stronger on the other side of the pandemic: the faster we adopt AV, the faster the benefits of the technology, and all of its positive externalities, will be realised.

As EasyMile we are also providing autonomous solutions for material handling and we have seen some strong interests in the recent months as factories must continue churning out their products to the market and get them delivered, despite the pandemic impact on labour availability and productivity.

For instance, domestic consumption of red meat increased during the pandemic, while abattoirs and meat processing facilities have experienced production challenges that a greater level of automation could have addressed.

Finally, we cannot lose sight of the big issues and transport challenges pre-COVID-19: mobility creates opportunities and access to mobility and network coverage, congestion and the increasingly urgent need to move to cleaner transport solutions, must remain top of the transport agenda beyond the current circumstances.

And what changes do you think will happen in transport post-pandemic?

The pandemic has put the spotlight on automating more aspect of the user journey on autonomous transport; for instance, automating doors behaviour without the need for passenger to press on the door button, self-disinfecting using UV lights, enforcing ridership numbers and social distancing etc.

From a public transport perspective, the recovery will be slow as people are nervous about taking shared transport.

It will take some time before ridership comes back to pre-COVID levels, but it will eventually rebound – this is what we observed in 2003 with the SARS epidemic in cities like Hong Kong and Taipei – with some hurdles:

  • From a perception and behaviour standpoint, the modal shift from shared transport toward modes that limit contact and the risk of infection such as private cars, but also cycling or walking, is likely to continue until the threat is eliminated. Unfortunately, in the short term a lot of people will tend to retreat to the safety of their car.
  • Greater flexibility in workplaces: employees and employers have come to realise the benefits of working from home from a productivity and convenience perspective, the sweet spot being a mix of working from home on some days and from the office on some others. I believe this new flexibility is here to stay and it may create an impact on long term demand if we move from a 5-day office week to a 3 or 4-day office week.

But the pandemic also created some opportunities on the public transport side:

  • Optimising public transport – it does feel we’ve created a big tentacular monster with some PT network and there is no better time for network and planning overhaul to rationalise unused lines. Digitalised, optimised transport like demand responsive transport will be on the rise
  • Contactless fares were already ubiquitous pre-pandemic in Australia and the crisis has accelerated the move for services that still accepted cash, like the Brisbane buses and ferries, which transitioned to cashless payment on 25 March 2020.
  • Rise of disinfecting solutions e.g. UV greenlight to kill germs between booking in the case of car sharing vehicles, or at stops in the case of rolling stocks
  • Future proofing and readiness of the transport system for the next pandemic or large-scale events and emergencies like 9/11 in New York

Regarding the AV industry, the trend to automation will continue on its upward trajectory, with some new and pandemic-pivot use cases that are here to stay: deliveries in particular might become the first commercial applications as the operational design domain for smaller autonomous vehicles in pedestrian areas or sidewalks are more controlled with simplified safety cases compared to operations on public roads and in mixed traffic.

In the immediate future, we’re likely to see a blip in the trend due to innovation funding being scaled back as companies deal with day-to-day cash management issues – this should only be brief thankfully.

Like this interview? Click here to see the rest of our interviews about the effects of COVID-19 on the transport sector.

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