Autonomous vehicles could benefit health if cars are electric, shared

cars on a road with trees above, and a cellphone at the foreground

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to reshape urban life and significantly modify travel behavior. Researchers now believe they also could benefit public health – if the cars are electric and rides are shared.

A new study led by Dr. David Rojas, assistant professor of epidemiology at Colorado State University, looked at the potential health risks and benefits of autonomous vehicles. The study, “Autonomous vehicle and public health,” is published in the Annual Review of Public Health.

The research team found that while this mode of transportation could increase some health risks, including air pollution, noise and sedentary behavior, if properly regulated, it would likely reduce morbidity and mortality from motor vehicle crashes and may promote healthier urban environments.

“At the international level, we are still seeing very little research or planning by government officials in anticipation of the advent of these new transport technologies, despite the fact that autonomous vehicles have the potential to significantly modify our cities and the way we travel,” said Rojas, first author of the paper.

Industry experts predict that by the end of 2020, 5% of car sales will involve self-driving vehicles and that this figure could rise to 40% by 2030.

“Autonomous technology” refers to technology that can drive a vehicle without the need for any active physical control or monitoring by a human driver. Car autonomy is classified on a six-level scale starting at zero – a vehicle with no automation in which the driver performs all operating tasks and controls the driving environment – and going up to level five, a completely automated vehicle.

The authors of the study synthesized data from published research to identify the possible direct and indirect health impacts of autonomous vehicles on the population. The study also includes recommendations for policymakers, health professionals and researchers in the field.

“The advent of autonomous vehicles may result in either health benefits or risks, depending on a number of factors, such as how the technology is implemented, what fuel and engines are used, how self-driving cars are used and how they are integrated with other modes of transport,” said Rojas.

Reduced road accidents

The use of autonomous vehicles is likely to reduce the number of road accidents. In one of the studies cited in the paper, researchers projected that if 90% of the cars in the United States were to become fully autonomous, an estimated 25,000 lives could be saved every year, with economic savings estimated at over $200 billion a year.

Researchers said autonomous vehicles would also offer major opportunities for public health if the vehicles are electric, used in a ridesharing format and integrated into a model that also prioritizes public transport, cycling and walking. Such a model would promote physical activity, reduce air and noise pollution, and provide more public space for a healthy urban design.

However, self-driving vehicles could have a negative impact on public health if the future model is based on fossil fuel engines and individual ownership, leading to an increase in motorized traffic, greater sedentary behavior and worse air quality.

Co-author Mark J. Nieuwenhuijsen, researcher and director of ISGlobal’s Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative, said that leaders around the world need to start planning for the implementation of autonomous technology as soon as possible to minimize the risks and maximize the health benefits.

“This technology should be used to support public and active transport, prioritizing the most disadvantaged communities and contributing to a shift in urban planning and transport models that will lead to a healthier urban environment.”

Additional co-authors on the study include Haneen Khreis, research scientist at Texas A&M University and Professor Howard Frumkin of the University of Washington.