COVID-19: Our new normal

Article By : Brian Dipert

Here's how COVID-19 will impact the environment, transportation, the deployment of autonomous vehicles, and social engagement, and leave us increasingly isolated

As I mentioned in my previous post‘s introduction, even after an effective novel coronavirus vaccine is developed and widely deployed (assuming the virus doesn’t evolve in response), and contact tracking and tracing (by humans and/or automated and claimed-anonymous systems) is in place, some things we’ve done pre-pandemic will (IMHO) never return to “normal.”

In part this will be because people will remain wary of congregating in close proximity, especially with strangers. And in larger part, this will be because the social distancing we’ve been compelled to undertake (by political and peer pressure, along with regulatory threat of prosecution if we do otherwise) will become the new norm. I’ve already worked my way halfway through the list of topics I wanted to cover in this particular series. The remainder of the list, in no particular order, follows in the paragraphs below.

Public transit

In mid-April, a $25B USD bailout was negotiated between the US government and a consortium of airlines. The underlying reason for the bailout is perhaps obvious: pretty much nobody’s flying (except for the airlines themselves, with empty planes mind-bogglingly kept in service to preserve gate reservations at airports and optimum inter-airport routes). Business travelers are meeting over Zoom and other videoconferencing services instead and pleasure travelers are hunkering down and hoarding whatever discretionary funds might exist in their bank accounts. Nobody wants to sit next to a stranger that might be a COVID-19 carrier.

As shelter-in-place restrictions start to lift, even assuming that folks’ infection concerns diminish (unlikely), ongoing pressure to maintain six-foot (or more) spacing in order to keep the curve flattened and avoid overwhelming health care systems will remain for quite some time. This means no more people packed like sardines in airplanes; one person per multi-seat cluster (two total per row, three per row for wide-body planes). The same goes for buses, trains, subways, and other forms of mass transit; don’t even get me started on cruise ships. That means we’ll need to put more planes, buses, trains, and subways into service, which will unfortunately raise costs, a particular issue for those who don’t own their own cars, for example, or who live in big cities where mass transit is the only option. And speaking of cars, yes we’ll start taking destination vacations again, but we’ll get to those destinations in personally owned vehicles, and we’ll only share them with family members and trusted friends.


Even today, we’re hearing word of drones, shuttles, and other semi- and fully-autonomous vehicles being used to transport COVID-19 test samples to labs for analysis, personal protective equipment (PPE), medicine, and other supplies to hospitals and homebound patients, etc. As with many of the other technologies discussed in this blog series, the pandemic has transformed what-if experiments into deployments fueled by urgent necessity, bootstrapping upstart robotic and other autonomous approaches that might otherwise not have survived in the competitive marketplace against entrenched legacy alternatives (or at minimum otherwise would have ramped into the market much more slowly).

Look, too, at the shipping industry; I’ve already discussed the reliability, cost, and other benefits of autonomous trucks versus human-driven ones. When you further contend with the likelihood that those human drivers might be incapacitated by novel coronavirus, in contrast to the ongoing necessity for goods to continue to flow through the country and world in general, autonomy becomes even more appealing. Finally, I’ll close this section with an encouragement to read further about the case studies of telepresence robots being used in medical facilities to effectively interact with patients while their remotely-located human medical professional operators are safely protected from infection by those same patients.

photo of a line of Texas Telepresence robotsSource: Bernard Goldbach, Flickr

The environment

Pollution and other particulates, heat and other emissions measured by sensor-clad satellites, high-altitude balloons, and the like have long found use in quantifying the economic and other activity of various regions around the world. And unsurprisingly, that activity has plummeted in recent months. Do Los Angeles residents appreciate the haze-free views of recent times, when they’re able to go outside and enjoy them, that is? You bet. Will they vote with their wallets to keep those views even after restrictions ease, by buying electric cars instead of fossil fuel-powered ones, for example? One would hope. And perhaps more importantly (since if those EVs are recharged by coal or natural gas power plants elsewhere, you’re to at least some degree only relocating the pollution source, not eliminating it) will they further vote to stop propping up legacy power providers and thereby further hasten the transition to renewable alternatives? I can dream, can’t I?

Large-group social engagement

This last category spans a whole spectrum of events and activities that defined the “normal” of the past. Here are some examples, with brief critiques and forecasts.

My wife and I haven’t been able to attend Catholic Mass since the second Sunday of Lent, and we have no idea when we’ll be able to worship in community and receive the Eucharist again (Advent, maybe?). For me, live-streamed services are a pale substitute, and my worship practice has admittedly suffered as a result. Others are managing more effectively.

I’ve recently written about the slow fade-out of movie theaters and now COVID-19 has pounded a few more nails into their coffins; studios are releasing new films directly to streaming providers (at appropriately inflated prices) instead. Their “death rattle” is now too audible to be ignored or dismissed, and sadly I’m increasingly skeptical that they’ll pull through.

At the beginning of the year, I thriftily (at the time) but unwisely (in retrospect) binged on “fan presale” deals for tickets to various concerts at Red Rocks and elsewhere later in the summer. I’ve got low confidence that any of them will actually take place. Conversely, alas, I’m highly confident that the promoters will declare the concerts indefinitely postponed versus definitely canceled, thereby precluding refunds, but I digress. Longer term, will live concert broadcasts to converted movie theaters with social distancing-appropriate seat spacing or to fans’ living rooms make sense? And if not, how will musicians make money? Speaking of which, many of my favorite bands have been re-broadcasting videos of past recordings as a means of maintaining fan interest and engagement, and it’s so surreal to see tens of thousands of people pressed up against each other in the audience.

Sporting events are similarly impacted, with dim prospects of any near-term resurrection. NASCAR is doing virtual races in order to keep interest up and the Denver Post sports section is covering baseball game simulations in lieu of real ones. I share Randall Munroe’s skepticism about more general virtual competitions. Even if athletes can be convinced to return to close-proximity activity, social distancing will keep spectators away from the facilities. And without a live audience cheering them on, how motivated will athletes be, anyway?

Community health centers are closed right now, of course, resulting in a boom in sales of home exercise equipment. Long term, even after the health clubs re-open, will “virtual social exercise” platforms like Peloton continue to be the option of choice? Likely.

I’m sorry, folks. No matter how cool I think VR is for certain things, it’s not going to be a credible general-purpose alternative to face-to-face (essential to long-term health) for business meetings or more traditional social interaction any time soon. There’s a fundamental reason why Second Life, around for nearly 20 years now, hasn’t garnered more than a fringe audience, with the population of regular users even smaller in size.

I always try to not wrap up on a downer note, but I can’t help but do so in this case. The world, in some senses increasingly connected (as COVID-19’s rapid spread exemplifies) is at the same time growing increasingly isolated. We don’t know our neighbors, we substitute shallow relationships on social media for more meaningful interactions, and we pick-and-choose our “friends” based on politics, religion, and other flammable issues. COVID-19 and its after-effects threaten to expand this divide, rending the social fabric even further. Is your outlook more rosy than mine? If so (and regardless, of course), I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

P.S. PR people out there, please practice tactfulness. To do otherwise (as some of you already are, judging from my inbox’s disappointing daily contents) will, trust me, be counterproductive to your desired outcome, and not just in the near term.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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