Driverless cars are coming.
The technological imperative is powerful; if we have the technology, we need to use it. The economic imperative is even more powerful as many businesses see big dollar signs. Governments would like to be somewhat cautious, but they do not want to get left behind. We’re told driverless cars will be much safer, because human error causes over 90 percent of crashes. Human-operated cars affect health in three major ways; all negatively. How might driverless automobiles be better?
First, car crashes kills around 1.25 million individuals globally, 1,200 of whom were Australian, in 2015. The claims that driverless cars will kill fewer people are plausible, but unproven. Safety improvements will depend on the technology in the cars, which is currently being tested and developed. Safety also depends upon how the surrounding environments are engineered or re-engineered to keep things and people from getting in the way of driverless cars.
Secondly, automobiles kill people by creating contamination. Cars with internal combustion engines produce gases and particulates, which cause lung disease. Motor vehicles are also among the largest source of carbon dioxide worldwide, which causes climate change.
Third, automobiles kill people because we sit while we drive, reducing healthier modes of transportation like biking, walking, as well as taking public transportation. Public transportation is a healthy mode of travel because people generally have to cycle or walk, from and between channels and stops.
Small physical activity and too much sitting collectively contributes to the chronic diseases which kill many people on the planet. These diseases are usually heart ailments, strokes, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes. Driverless cars will do nothing to reduce the effects of automobiles on chronic diseases unless they are introduced in a manner that reduces the time people spend sitting in cars. More than 90 percent of the negative health impacts of automobiles result from the Effects on physical activity, sitting, and chronic illness. For instance, modeling found that if 10 percent of motorised transport in Melbourne was changed to biking or walking, improvements in disability-adjusted life-years for each 100,000 individuals (an indicator of amount and quality of life) would be -34 (worse) for road trauma (mainly because cyclists may not be protected from automobiles), +2 for lung ailments, and +708 for the mix of heart diseases and type 2 diabetes. Models for five different cities (Boston, Copenhagen, Delhi, London and Sao Paulo) supported the identical conclusion. Virtually all of the health impacts of automobiles are due to increasing dangers for quite common chronic diseases. Therefore it won’t matter whether people are sitting in driverless or people-driven cars.
Among the consequences of those findings is that the people planning for driverless cars should explicitly consider the health consequences of driverless cars. Injuries from crashes and air pollution are routinely considered in transport planning, but affects on physical activity and chronic diseases aren’t. Transportation planning goals and methods need to integrate chronic disease impacts generally, but particularly when planning a significant disruption like adapting driverless cars. Ideally, public health professionals will be in the table as questions are asked and conclusions are made.
The driverless future depends mostly on who’s making decisions about driverless automobiles, what accessories they will include such as 4wd bull bars or added on 4wd equipment, however, the results are likely to vary across states with different policies and car designs.
For example, will these companies custom design their cars, with the interior having a choice of fabric or leather car seats, or by adding a few extras, such as a car seat heater for comfort? The majority of the discussion so far has been about the technology’s ability to maintain driverless cars from running into each other and people on the roads — not the luxuries of the car.
The largest health impacts are likely to be based on how cities are changed to adapt driverless cars. It is apparent that designing cities to be ideal for “car 1.0” has been a long-term catastrophe for health and ecological sustainability. Roads designed to meet transportation goals of moving as many cars as quickly as possible are dangerous and unpleasant for pedestrians and cyclists.
Suburban-style improvements are based on the premise that people will drive anywhere they go. But building low-density home, the separation of homes from jobs and stores, and disconnected street networks inflict auto dependency. Urban design and land use policies which make these environments have become common worldwide and have been demonstrated to have numerous physical (chronic diseases), psychological (stress), and societal (isolation) health issues. People are just starting to brainstorm how cities can change for “car 2.0”. The range in dreams is enormous, with both massive implications for health. I’ve heard of two contrasting visions that could have very different health consequences. One vision assumes that driverless cars are considered as part of a wider concept of urban mobility that focuses on moving people rather than cars. The emphasis will be on active modes, with greatly improved accessibility to public transportation and corporate-owned shared driverless cars utilized as supplements to another (fitter) modes. There could be fewer cars, which are in use the majority of the time, so the demand for parking would be radically reduced. Think about what can be done with the enormous amounts of land now used for parking. Sidewalks could be enlarged, protected bicycle trails could be added to a lot of streets, and linear parks could be created.
However, we can waste the chance so that automobile 2.0 merely proceeds the errors and negative health and environmental effects that automobile 1.0 has been delivering for the past century. The critical difference lies in who’s making the decisions and what the standards for success are. Public health professionals should be one of the decision-makers, since the consequences are too important to leave to engineers and company leaders. The primary criteria should deal with how to use driverless car technology to make people’s lives better and make our cities healthier, more livable, more sustainable, and not to maximise profits.