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Coronavirus highlights strengths of self-driving delivery vehicles

With quarantines across China, one company flexed its tech muscles to show the usefulness of autonomous vehicles.

Neolix during coronavirus outbreak in China
Neolix showing its little vans are pretty helpful.
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When cities are on lockdown and quarantines keep people from going out to do absolutely anything, it quickly makes for a tough situation. Yet, despite the awful consequences of the coronavirus, one Chinese company is showing how technology can make a difference.

Neolix, a self-driving delivery vehicle startup in China, has been working overtime to usher more of its autonomous delivery vans onto empty Chinese roads amid quarantines. According to a Bloomberg report last week, Chinese companies have booked orders for 200 of the tiny robotic vehicles, including online megaretailers Alibaba and Before the coronavirus outbreak in China, Neolix had just 125 orders since last May. Talk about a boost to business.

The autonomous vans have played a pivotal role in some parts of China, delivering medical supplies to areas hit hardest by the virus outbreak. They've even supplemented labor shortages as the country continues to black out some businesses from operating. Disinfecting the streets? Neolix handles that too, and it'll deliver food to health workers on the front lines working with those who've fallen ill.

Now, local Chinese governments plan to subsidize the purchase of the self-driving vans as their benefits become apparent. According to the report, governments may eat 60% of the purchase price to put the useful machines on the ground. Neolix plans to deliver 1,000 vehicles this year, thanks to the boost to business. 

What remains to be seen is if Nuro sees a similar boost. The US company operates a vehicle a lot like Neolix's machine, though it's only worked on pilot programs in Arizona to deliver groceries. This year, the company planned to expand operations and deliveries in Texas and got the OK from the US federal government to begin operation.

Even if we don't see the autonomous vehicles take to the streets quickly, their benefits in this scenario are apparent: Machines don't get sick and can help mitigate the spread of an epidemic.

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Originally published March 9.