A Mayo Clinic campus in Jacksonville, Fla., is testing a new way to transport COVID-19 tests from a drive-thru site to its processing laboratory: driverless shuttles.
Mayo Clinic deployed four shuttles last week. They travel from the drive-thru site to the lab without drivers or other people on board. The sites are less than a mile from one another, as they're both located on the campus, and collaborators on the project selected routes with limited pedestrians and traffic.
"We want to limit exposure of people to the virus," said Dr. Charles Bruce, chief innovation officer at Mayo Clinic in Florida. By getting rid of the need for a driver or other staff member to transport the lab tests, "we're exposing fewer people to these samples."
Bruce said he'd been in the early stages of considering ways to use driverless vehicles—maybe to shuttle patients across the Jacksonville campus—but the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated that process.
The shuttles are a joint effort between Mayo Clinic, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and two companies that work on driving automation systems, Beep and NAVYA.
Nathaniel Ford, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority's CEO, in a statement said the collaboration provided an opportunity to "increase the safety of COVID-19 testing." The Jacksonville Transportation Authority has been testing automated vehicles since 2017, with a vision of using them to shuttle people in downtown Jacksonville.
For Mayo, the shuttles could curb infection risk and "limit the number of staff that would need to actually be present on campus," Bruce said. The Jacksonville campus is considering expanding the project to transport linens that may have been contaminated with COVID-19 to laundry services.
The four shuttles are on loan to Mayo Clinic during the COVID-19 pandemic, so the health system only pays to keep the shuttles charged.
But the program may not completely cut down on staff.
The shuttles are a type of developing and immature technology in which a vehicle "doesn't need human supervision continuously, but is still limited in which conditions it can operate under," said Steven Shladover, a research engineer at UC Berkeley's California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology program who was not involved with the project.
The Society of Automotive Engineers defines six levels of driving automation systems, from no automation at level 0 to full automation at level 6. Shladover estimated Mayo's shuttles are a level 4.
Although level 4 systems are driverless, Shladover noted they might not necessarily cut down on staff time. Mayo Clinic "may have been avoiding having a driver in the vehicle right near these potentially infectious samples, but they weren't saving labor," he said.
At the Jacksonville campus, staff from Mayo Clinic still manually load the COVID-19 tests onto the shuttle, and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority monitors shuttles as they travel from a remote command center.
As a precaution, Jacksonville Transportation Authority staff drive ahead and behind of each shuttle so they can stop traffic at intersections. The transportation authority also has staff ride behind the shuttles on electronic scooters to ensure pedestrians don't get too close.
The global market for level 4 and 5 driving automation systems was $5.7 billion in 2018, according to market research firm Statista. It's expected to hit $60 billion by 2030.
Automotive, delivery and technology companies are investing significant time and resources into this type of automation. Companies like Amazon, Google's parent Alphabet, FedEx, UPS, General Motors, Ford Motor Co., and more are "spending billions and billions of dollars developing this technology," said Gary Silberg, head of automotive in consulting firm KPMG's Americas division.
Silberg said programs like Mayo Clinic's, which use a pre-determined route and operate within a designated and geofenced area, could become more common in the next few years. Down the line, drug delivery or even getting patients at risk for missing appointments to the hospital could prove promising uses for driverless vehicles.
Those types of uses are being discussed for healthcare, but haven't been deployed yet.