As automakers envision a world swarmed with self-driving robotaxis, they also need to figure out a way to keep them clean. Tesla believes using humans to periodically clean the robotaxis would be “time-consuming and laborious.” Admittedly, cleaning the remnants of bad human habits on potentially thousands of these robotaxis could be a tedious job in a post-pandemic world. Hence, automation is the way forward.

In a patent application filed with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) last February that only surfaced online recently, Tesla revealed the technology it intends to use on its future robotaxis to keep them free of diseases and pathogens.

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Are robotaxis the next big thing?

Automakers and some tech companies certainly think so. Google's Waymo already operates in mapped areas of select U.S. cities and GM's Cruise is expected to resume operations soon. However, these are existing EVs retrofitted with autonomous tech. Now the race is on to build the first ground-up driverless cars, like the Tesla Cybercab and the Rimac Verne.

The patent disclosure reveals that sensors would detect the car's state of hygiene. Based on the data it gathers from the sensors, a processor would generate a “sanitation routine,” to disinfect the entire car, or just certain areas like seats, touchscreen, or the dashboard. The sensors and the car's computers would decide if it needs to be disinfected or a more thorough wash. 

The vehicle would then sanitize itself using one or more methods. This includes emitting infrared radiation and UV lighting at specific wavelengths. It may also use HVAC controls to raise the cabin temperatures to eliminate certain viruses. When the onboard computer deems it necessary, it can even emit a “disinfection vapor” over surfaces. We don't know what kind of hardware is required for this, and how Tesla will package it.

The sensors might be able to detect pathogens as well, and then direct specific "disinfection light" to be emitted toward touch surfaces where they're detected. Weirdly, it will also know when you sneeze or cough, and then “transport the vapor from an occupant’s mouth to the external of the vehicle based on sensor data.” If this is at all true, technology has certainly come far. But if I were the robotaxi, I'd just flash warnings in bold letters and max volume to urge occupants to cover their mouths. It's basic.

The robotaxi might also be able to orient itself in a particular direction to expose more touch surfaces to sunlight. Sunrays, as we know, are natural and effective ways to kill germs. So why not? This may include opening a door window or sunroof to allow more penetration of sunlight. The patent filing says even the screen would tilt at a certain angle and the seats would adjust to allow more sunlight inside, depending on which direction the rays are coming from.

According to the patent filings, Tesla Robotaxi would be able to reorient itself to let maximum sunlight in for disinfection.

If the robotaxi can’t clean itself, it would drive to a parking spot where service robots would clean it. The robots might use “infrared lighting, contact heating, or steam sanitation.” Allowing all this is an entire suite of sensors, according to the patent filing:

  • Vision sensors
  • Acoustic sensors
  • Thermal sensors
  • Weight sensors
  • Pressure sensors
  • Capacitive sensors
  • Radiofrequency sensors (to detect human body breathing, heartbeats, etc.)
  • Laser sensors
  • Humidity sensors
  • Gas sensors

I urge skepticism with most of these innovations, especially when it comes to mass deployment. The need for support service infrastructure where these cleaning robots are installed would be huge. As we've seen with Superchargers, it takes years for any support infrastructure to come up.

It’s also unclear what happens when say, a filthy rider sticks a piece of gum under the seat, leaves bags of chips in deep pockets of the car, or sweats all over the seats after a workout. Would the service robots be able to take care of some of our foulest habits? We might find that out soon, at the robotaxi unveiling event on August 8.

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