While the coronavirus has sent shockwaves through every service sector, the impact on the transportation industry has been especially severe. Automotive plants have shut down, new car sales have plummeted, and Uber and Lyft have reduced their workforce as social distancing has drastically reduced the demand for ride-hailing. In a world where stay-at-home orders are the norm, all forms of mobility have seen an abrupt decline and the entire transportation economy has suffered. Providers of shared mobility services like Uber, Zipcar, and Turo have struggled to sustain themselves in a world where consumers are ultra-conscious of human contact.
In a post-coronavirus world, mobility businesses will have economic incentives to deploy updated health practices to reassure their customers. But there are legal liabilities to consider as well. Lawsuits relating to the coronavirus outbreak have already begun and many more are expected. The threat of exposure-related lawsuits are of particular concern, especially as businesses reopen amidst uncertainty about the continued dangers of contracting the virus.
As emergency orders are relaxed and ordinary business slowly resumes, social distancing will require transportation services to adapt to post-coronavirus social norms. Companies have already begun to implement new practices to reassure consumers wary of close human contact.
Major car rental companies have instituted additional sanitization protocols. Car-sharing operators have begun to use deep-cleaning methods like fogging as part of their routine service operations. And peer-to-peer rental services like Turo and Getaround offer cars with contactless pickup options to reduce in-person exchanges.
Ride-hailing companies are especially challenged in responding to the pandemic. Uber and Lyft have temporarily halted pooled rides in the U.S. and Canada. But considering current social distancing recommendation that suggest people keep six feet apart, Uber and Lyft also need to limit contact between passengers and drivers. Lyft has instructed drivers to keep windows open during rides to increase air circulation and has provided them with cleaning supplies through designated service centers. But given the ride-hailing business model, which relies on contract workers rather than dedicated employees, riders will ultimately need to trust individual drivers to properly sanitized cars and maintain other health practices.
Ultimately, ride-hailing companies may need to experiment with other modifications or optional ‘upgrades’ to their basic service. Many traditional taxis already have built-in partitions that separates the driver from rear seat passengers. Now, Uber and Lyft drivers may need to retro-fit their vehicles with plexiglass windshields or other physical barriers to soothe health conscious riders. Indeed, the City of Detroit has recently partnered with Honda to create a vehicle outfitted to transport people potentially infected with COVID19. Honda engineered vehicles installed a plastic panel between the front row where the driver sits and the rear portion of the cabin to create a barrier, and they also tweaked the HVAC system.
All businesses in the transportation supply chain, from auto manufacturers to car dealerships, will have to implement new protocols to accommodate heightened health risks related to the coronavirus.
At a minimum, businesses are advised to follow the guidance of appropriate health authorities and educate their employees and customers about best practices for avoiding virus transmission. Many companies want to be proactive in preventing potential exposures. But experimenting with untested solutions carry different risks. For example, some ambulance services and police departments have begun to use UV Light to disinfect vehicles and equipment. And several shared vehicle services have adopted this technology. But these new technologies do not replace standard safety hygiene protocols and may have other unintended consequences if not managed by trained professionals. Further, ‘deep cleaning’ is not a scientific concept and providers will need to take care in how they represent their new protocols to consumers.
Pro-business organizations like the Chamber of Commerce have lobbied for protection from litigation that could result from coronavirus-related lawsuits. But new legislation that completely insulates companies from liability appears unlikely. In the meantime, any business or service that involves transporting people or goods will carry some legal and regulatory risks. Different industries carry different risks and there is no one-size-fits-all solution for managing the response to coronavirus related policies. With so many unknowns, it is essential that businesses take a holistic approach to their post-coronavirus policies that incorporates traditional industry expertise, standardized processes, and input from health experts and legal counsel.