Driverless cars could be key to preventing pandemic


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Driverless cars and automotive technology could play a key role in managing future pandemics according to a team of researchers at Lero, the SFI Research Centre for Software and University of Limerick.
Highly automated vehicles could offer an effective way to identify infectious people at the earliest stage possible and thereby help to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
China, where COVID-19 was first detected is beginning to lift restrictions in an effort to return to normal life, relying on monitoring technologies to isolate infected people.
According to the New York Times, China is using an app called Alipay Health Code which assigns a green, yellow or red QR code to each user. Only the green QR code would allow you to move freely around. Those who get the yellow one have to stay at home for seven days and red means a two-week quarantine. How the codes are generated is less clear. However, it is known that the app gathers information about contacts with infected persons and symptoms people report.
Lots of work is being done in the area of using mobile apps as a solution and the advantage of smartphones in a pandemic world is undeniable. We interact with our smartphones an average of 150 times per day and would hardly forget it when leaving home. That makes smartphones an integral part of human life that allows policy-makers to generate a vast data lake that is very useful to track the spread of viruses like COVID-19. Despite that, let’s point out one crucial limitation of the smartphone approach. All users need to add their symptoms to the system to make the scheme work. So, if we don’t, we are an invisible source of infection until our disease is confirmed by medical service. Hence, smartphones alone won’t be the single solution for the complex task to slow down the spread of a virus.
Cars are a centrepiece of daily transportation so why don’t we think about the potential of the vehicle in a pandemic world? Research is finding new ways to make cars smarter. They want them to understand the whole complexity of the driving environment, including the person inside. Highly intelligent vehicles could gather and analyse information about symptoms of a virus such as COVID-19, and thereby support the isolation process of infectious people by informing about a possible infection just before leaving the house. As a result, due to the car, infected people would not come into contact with those non-infected cutting off a route of transmission at one of the earliest stages possible.
According to the USA’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms could appear as soon as two days after exposure or as long as 14 days later with the severity and type of the first symptoms varying widely between humans. So, the intelligent car will need to identify the whole palette of symptoms, such as fatigue, headache, sore throat, cough, fever, shortness of breath and so on, to make a reliable assessment.
Driver monitoring technologies that could allow smart vehicles to identify symptoms of a disease are already very advanced. Volkswagen cars can already recognise fatigue. PERCLOS (PERcent of Eye CLOSure) is one of the most accepted and valid criteria for fatigue detection. This method uses a camera and identifies eyelids’ movements and quantifies the duration the eye is more than 80% closed. Also, thermal cameras discussed for airports and other public places can be installed in a vehicle. This is noteworthy as thermal cameras can detect elevated body temperature and identify individuals that may need further screening with virus-specific tests. Another helpful technology to track symptoms is Intel RealSense SDK, which creates the next generation of software applications that are natural, immersive, and intuitive. It allows to gather high-quality information from the inside of a vehicle. Linked with noise sensors that information is highly valuable as the car can detect us coughing or being short of breath.
With the whole lake of information, vehicles soon could help to manage a pandemic world. The artificial intelligence of the car can understand and communicate the likelihood of infection in the human passenger to the authorities or to the driver. It can also use that information to propose a further course of action to save your life. Your vehicle can detect a medical emergency such as severe shortness of breath and arrange to call 911 to inform the medical service about your condition or more futuristic still, imagine that your car is even able to drive you to the hospital to get you treated and tested. All of this will mean that automated vehicles in future will be a key component of the policy mix.

By Tim Jannusch, Dr Martin Cunneen, Dr Martin Mullins of Lero, the SFI Research Centre for Software and University of Limerick