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Will Self Driving Cars Really Save Lives?

Waymo Self Driving Car

We often hear about how self-driving cars will minimise accidents and save lives, but there is far more to the picture. Potentially, self driving cars can negatively impact your health, and can these impacts number more than the lives saved? We don’t want to paint autonomous driving technology as a negative, but there are both positive and negative health implications to the shift, as with any shift in technology, especially if it adds to ‘convenience’.

We’re going to asses using the perfect scenario, where the car drives 100% of the time and we are relegated to simply a passenger, not needing to interfere when conditions change, traffic, etc. Of course there are inherent challenges in the development of the technology, even some unique to Australia (such as recognising the erratic hopping movements of kangaroos), and we are always at risk of the emus waging another war, and the last one didn’t go so well. Yet, most people will agree we are going towards fully automated self-driving cars becoming the norm. It’s just a matter of time.


Tesla Model X

So, when we move from active driver to inactive passenger, what are the health benefits and risks?

Let’s tackle the obvious – lives saved from car accidents. The car doesn’t get inattentive, drunk, frustrated, tired, sick, or enraged. The car can respond faster than a human can. It can notice changes in other cars speeds, subtle traction changes on the road, shifts in traffic patterns, as well as be continually connected to a wealth of information from the self-driving car network, huge amounts of information and variables a human driver could not comprehend or respond to. In short, there is no debate that we would have designed a car to drive better than we ever could and it would save the lives of drivers, passengers and pedestrians. What does it mean on numbers? About 1,200 Australian deaths per year, that could be potentially avoided in a perfect autonomous system.

But, we have all seen the obvious effects of when things become convenient. We consume more of them. Convenience stores are far too prevalent, elevators are chosen over stairs, UberEATS over a homecooked meal, and so on. We don’t need to belabour the point, unless you have been living under a rock you know that Australians on average have been getting fatter and lazier. As for numbers it’s tricky, advancements in medicine and treatment are helping and reducing the number of deaths for lifestyle related disease, but at the same time that decline is slowing as sedentary behaviour continues to contribute to additional deaths. So for a lot of these figures, the morbidity of health conditions is decreasing, but not as fast as it should. There are a lot of Australians dying, that shouldn’t have, by increasing their general levels of activity.

Stats are tricky, as chronic conditions are complicated, and it’s hard to quantify, there is room for error. What most sources agree on, is that around 10.1% of Australian deaths are caused by physical inactivity, in numbers that’s 16,000 deaths per year. Compared to the relatively small 1,200 deaths per year due to the road toll, inactivity is a bigger health crisis.


Mercedes-Benz F015 – Luxury in Motion

We also need to briefly mention dementia, the more active the brain, the lower the risk of dementia. Of course, it’s not that simple, genetics play a part, but levels of physical activity also contribute to dementia, as well as a list of other lifestyle factors. But, to avoid dementia it’s a no-brainer that staying mentally alert helps to avoid, delay and slow it’s progression – as well as physical activity. Both of these two lifestyle changes that can dramatically reduce the change of getting dementia, as well as it’s progression, are negatively influenced by autonomous driving vehicles.

We’d like to mention, for those reading who are worried about dementia, the best thing you can do is learn another language, followed by puzzles and physical activity.

It’s evident that potentially self driving cars could contribute to markedly more deaths per year, than those saved, through increasing chronic conditions caused by inactivity. Why potentially? As with all technology, it’s all how it’s implemented.

What if there were discounts on your next self-driving car-ride if the passenger has hit physical activity milestones? What if there were programs to make it more accessible for the physically disabled or elderly to access the service and increase their levels of socialisation? What if self-driving cars enabled passengers to do work on their commute, reducing their work hours and giving them access to physical activities during their lunch breaks? What if there were self-driving gyms making physical activity even more accessible?

IDEO WorkOnWheels

We estimate that we will see a range of these schemes. The countries that we have stereo-typically seen as bastions of progressive social programs (Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, etc.) will use self-driving car-share schemes to assist those with mobility issues gaining access to the world. We’d expect some to implement programs that would promote physical activity to offset the negative affects of the shift in market to autonomous vehicles.

In other markets, we would expect it to be less regulated, with the expectation the market will dictate the usage of the service. Businesses will appear that will try to tackle the societal impacts of self-driving cars, trying to promote physical inactivity; but, as we have already seen with the rising rates of obesity and sedentary lifestyles, without regulatory and government backing, they help, but not enough. In those markets we can expect that autonomous driving cars will likely have a negative contribution to the overall health of the population. As you can see in the stats, cars are fairly safe already, physical inactivity contributes to far more deaths.

It does sound a little pessimistic. What we can leave you with is this – in regards to your life, self-driving cars will be as positive as you make it. It’s up to you what you do with that added convenience.

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