Self-driving cars promise to be a boon to public health

Autonomous vehicles got a booster shot of credibility when federal regulators and issued guidance this week. But even before that researchers were projecting that the emerging technology could reduce automobile-related injuries and deaths.
By Jack McCarthy
07:10 AM
self-driving cars public health

Federal automobile safety regulators released industry guidelines Monday for automated vehicles, bringing a degree of safety oversight and, perhaps more important, providing a big push for driverless cars.

“We envision in the future, you can take your hands off the wheel, and your commute becomes restful or productive instead of frustrating and exhausting,” and self-driving cars “will save time, money and lives,” Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council said during a joint appearance with Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

To that end, the DOT’s guidance comprised a 15-point safety standard for design and development of autonomous vehicles. Although the guidance is not technically a mandate, it does open the door for new regulations that could apply to autonomous cars. The agencies recommended, for instance, that states put in place consistent policies for driverless cars and that manufacturers be transparent about their technology is validated as well as how they share any data collected by the vehicles.

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The agency also said it would assert its authority to recall semiautonomous and fully self-driving vehicles that it found to be unsafe.

These regulations come as attitudes are evolving in universities and labs researching automated cars and more and more cars are found on the road.

A group of national experts addressed implications of adoption at a symposium earlier this year at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“This is a great opportunity for some people to think deeply about the benefits of this technology and can some of these initial deployments be maybe in very in obvious places that can bring a lot of good to people,” said Chris Gerdes, director of Stanford University’s Center for Automotive Research.

Looking at specific safety benefits, for instance, the life-saving estimates for driverless cars are in a class with modern vaccines that save some 42,000 lives for what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described as each U.S. birth cohort.

Beyond the tragic cost in lives, there is a sizable economic impact to car crashes. Driverless cars potentially could diminish traffic fatalities as much as 90 percent, according to McKinsey and Co.

“For every person killed in a motor-vehicle accident, 8 are hospitalized, and 100 are treated and released from emergency rooms,” McKinsey explained. “The overall annual cost of roadway crashes to the US economy was $212 billion in 2012. Taking that year as an example, advanced autonomous vehicles reducing accidents by up to 90 percent would have potentially saved about $190 billion.”

Driverless cars won’t become ubiquitous overnight, of course, and there will be bumps along the way but the federal government’s new guidance at least has the promise of a substantive public health achievement at some future point. 

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