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How Can Autonomous Vehicles Help in a Pandemic?

My dad never graduated college, but he was full of wisdom. Imagine the worst case scenario, he liked to say, then plan around it. So right before the coronavirus lockdowns, I become one of those people. I emptied out my trunk, drove to the nearest Target, and stocked up on toilet paper. Then I drove to another Wal-Mart and got more toilet paper. Then I went home and watched the news about how toilet paper was sold out in a lot of places. But a week later the shelves were full again. No matter how much toilet paper I bought, there was always more, somewhere, ready for me to buy it.

If America’s supply chains could restock toilet paper in a reasonable amount of time, why couldn’t doctors and hospitals get masks and ventilators? What will happen when a coronavirus vaccine comes out? How will we distribute it to everyone?

This week on No Parking, Bryan, Megan and I connect with one of the nation’s leading supply chain experts, Dr. Nicolette Louissaint, who says we could learn a lot about supply chain management from the boxer Mike Tyson.

“It’s one of my favorite quotes,” she said, “and it’s always interesting to see the responses that I get when I use it …  ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.’”

But Dr. Louissaint is no armchair theorist. She’s been out on the front lines, and has no patience for crisis theater. “I’m actually a pharmacologist by training. So a lot of my focus has been understanding not just how to develop drugs, but how to get those drugs to the people that need them. There’s no value in the product until it can actually get to those patients.”

Through her work as Executive Director of HealthCare Ready, which advises public and private efforts before, during and after natural disasters and disease epidemics, Louissaint was instrumental in managing America’s response to the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak with the U.S. State Department. That collaboration remains an example of how to do it right.

“You have all of these resources and you have all of this global engagement,” Louissaint said of the highly contagious, highly fatal Ebola crisis, “but how do we create a response that can use force multipliers like the military, the United Nations, the World Food Program, and others to be able to help us to go the next step, to getting the supplies, the resources, the people, to the parts of West Africa that were most disparately impacted?”

But the kind of large-scale cooperation that mitigated the Ebola outbreak isn’t how most nations approached the novel coronavirus.

“Our emergency management framework,” said Louissaint, “has created this kind of scattershot approach where some elements are always local and some elements are always federal, and because we have a federal government and not a national government, we will continue to see that a lot of those decisions do remain at that local level.”

So often, she said, the local element is the critical missing piece — the last mile of a delivery, which Bryan recently helped solve in Pittsburgh

But if masks and test kits deliveries were our nation’s first test, and school reopenings and vaccine distribution become our second, what follows for the world of mass transit and commerce could be an even bigger question. 

“There’s always going to be the lingering memory of needing to wear a mask to feel comfortable, needing to maintain eight or six feet of distance to feel safe. And that’s going to be present for a very long time for those of us who have this as a part of our lived experience,” said Louissaint. “What does it look like to move people around in a world where they still want to remain six feet apart for the next few decades? What does it look like to be able to move goods around when you need to have no-contact deliveries as a standard, whether that is to a hospital or a pharmacy or a supermarket or your house? If the standard is we want to have as few hands on this box as possible, we want to have as limited contact as possible, how can AI and autonomous vehicles be a part of that solution to really help give that assurance of public health safety?” 

Now it’s up to developers to figure it out.

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