Study analyses potential impacts of autonomous vehicles on public health

Posted: 31 January 2020 |

The study also includes a series of recommendations aimed at policy makers, health professionals and researchers in the field.

Study analyses potential impacts of autonomous vehicles on public health

The Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) has taken part in a study that analysed the potential risks and benefits of autonomous vehicles for public health. 

David Rojas, first author of the paper and a researcher at ISGlobal and Colorado State University, explained: “At the international level, we are still seeing very little research or planning by the authorities 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. And this innovative autonomous technology will also have an impact on public health.”

The authors of the study synthesised data from published research to identify the possible direct and indirect health impacts of autonomous vehicles on the population. 

“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,” Rojas said.

One of the studies discussed in the paper estimated that if 90 per cent of the cars in the U.S. 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.

As well as providing benefits in terms of road safety, autonomous vehicles would also reportedly offer major opportunities for public health if the vehicles are electric and are used in a ridesharing format and integrated into a model that also prioritises 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, the researchers suggested.

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 motorised traffic, greater sedentarism and worse air quality, the researchers continued.

Author Mark J. Nieuwenhuijsen, researcher and Director of ISGlobal’s Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative, concluded: “We need to start planning the implementation of autonomous technology as soon as possible so as to minimise the risks and maximise the health benefits. This technology should be used to support public and active transport, prioritising the most disadvantaged communities and contributing to a shift in urban planning and transport models that will lead to a healthier urban environment.”