Michael Milford on COVID-19 and transport
In this first in a series of asking transport experts about the effect of COVID-19 on the industry now, along with its influence on the future, we begin with Michael Milford, Professor of Robotics at the Queensland University of Technology.
He was the research lead on the iMOVE project How automated vehicles will interact with road infrastructure, a project that has only recently finished, with its results presented in Autonomous vehicles and Australian roads: Are they ready for each other? He also gave his opinion to us last year on one of those rare occasions on which Tesla’s Elon Musk says something controversial, in Elon Musk vs LIDAR. Again.
Michael was also one of the first to feature in our Meet Smart Mobility Experts series of interviews. In that interview, Michael Milford: Positioning the future he spoke of his career path being set in motion by the film Terminator. So just how does he think transport will be baaack post-pandemic?
In your field, what are the main effects due to COVID-19 that you’re seeing right now?
Beyond the general disruption, the robotics and autonomous vehicle fields are facing both a key challenge and opportunity. The opportunity is the very human side of COVID-19 and the fact that many of the challenges are clearly linked to human contact – a challenge that, at least in theory, should be widely addressable by robots and autonomous vehicles. Think autonomous delivery vehicles and delivery drones, healthcare augmenting robots, disinfecting robots, enhanced telepresence robots and so on.
The challenge being faced, as was the case with past more localised disasters, is that the technology in most cases is still not mature enough to just rollout en masse. Add to that the fact that much of the key development is done in commercial enterprises, often startups with very short funding windows, and this disruption is likely going to be devastating, since there are limits to how much these organisations can go into hibernation for long periods of time.
For example, autonomous vehicles still largely require supervisory drivers in the car; as a consequence, most of this activity has ceased, at least for the moment, with implications for the contract drivers, as well as the developer’s long-term future. One of the effects of COVID in the long term is that it might tilt the balance back towards a more sustainable model of development of these technologies with more significant government and university involvement.
What changes would you like to see in transport when the world rights post-pandemic?
Transport innovation and development, like many things, is severely constrained by risk aversion. This aversion is valuable, up to a point, but it can also stifle innovation. When something this disruptive comes along it resets a lot of the “norms” and suddenly some of the former constraints are removed. Formerly stable systems – for example transport systems that are partially subsidised – may need to change radically to remain viable in a post-COVID world, opening the possibility of pivots that would not have formerly be considered.
The same applies for smaller organisations like startups that are considering their own long-term viability – pivots (for example from passenger carrying robotaxis to autonomous delivery vehicles) may become more feasible. When external events force a dramatic reconsideration of how we do things, there’s a silver lining in that it’s a valuable opportunity to really change some things.
And what changes do you think will happen in transport post-pandemic?
The long-term changes that will actually happen really depend on the societal and economic changes that persist post-COVID. If the economic situation is severe for a while, it’s likely that a lot of the more vulnerable smaller initiatives in transport-related areas will be hard to sustain, except those that have a clear and concrete value proposition rather than a more speculative one.
Just as COVID-19 has revealed inherent structural weaknesses in general, it will also be a fairly brutal litmus test for technology developments around transport. Some – food delivery and so forth – will likely prosper. We may see somewhat of a reverse exodus where a lot of the top talent who have flocked to startups and companies in this field may return to the public / university sector; this restoration of accessible expertise could in fact be a good thing.