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08 Nov 2016

Driverless cars will have a revolutionary impact on public health by virtually eliminating road accidents, slashing vehicle emissions, reducing social isolation and encouraging active transport, according to a leading health researcher.

Issuing a call for public health advocates to get behind the emerging technology, Professor Simone Pettigrew of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University said autonomous vehicles would make road transport far safer, saving hundreds of lives and billions of dollars each year.

Professor Pettigrew said around 1200 Australians were killed in motor vehicle accidents each year (almost 960 people have been killed on the nation’s roads so far this year), while a further 34,000 were hospitalised, costing the country $16 billion.

She said that 93 per cent of crashes were caused by human error such as speeding, running red lights or being distracted, and putting vehicles under the control of computers equipped with 360-degree sensors and split-second reaction times would virtually eliminate the chances of a crash occurring.

Trials of driverless cars have begun on public roads in the United States and Britain, and there has already been one recorded fatality when a Tesla Model S in autopilot mode failed to brake when a truck crossed the highway in front of it. A man in the car died in the crash. The company said both the car and the driver failed to detect the truck “against a brightly lit sky”.

Despite the accident, plans to test driverless cars on Australian roads are proceeding in South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia, and mining giant Rio Tinto already uses a fleet of autonomous trucks to haul iron ore at its Pilbara mines.

The technology has enormous financial backing.

Car makers Toyota, General Motors and Ford are investing billions of dollars into driverless car research in the next five years, and tech giants Google and Apple have joined Tesla in the race to develop autonomous vehicles and systems.

But regulators are cautious about letting the technology loose on the open roads, and many are uneasy about entrusting the safety of themselves and other road users to computers. One of the oft-raised concerns is how an autonomous vehicle might respond when faced with split-second decisions, such as the choice of either crashing into a tree or a child.

Professor Pettigrew scoffed at such concerns.

She said human drivers, with all their fallibilities, were already entrusted to make such decisions and driverless cars were, if anything, more trustworthy because of the technology they were equipped with.

“Autonomous vehicles are fitted with 360 degree sensors that are monitored constantly, so the chance of them detecting a child running onto the road is much, much greater than a human who has a more limited field of vision and slower reaction times,” she said.

Professor Pettigrew added that the safety of autonomous cars would increase over time because the lessons learned from any crashes involving a driverless car would be shared across all such vehicles.

In addition to slashing the road toll, the professor said driverless cars would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions because most were likely to derive most of their propulsion from electricity, and computer control would make them much more energy efficient than cars driven by humans.

Driverless cars would also make it far easier for the elderly and the disabled to get around, improving their access to health care and other services and reducing their social isolation, she said.

While autonomous vehicle technology is developing rapidly, advocates are uncertain how quickly it will be adopted.

But there are estimates that by 2040 around 75 per cent of all cars in the United States will be driverless, and Professor Pettigrew said she expected their use in Australia would be almost universal within the next 50 years.

But, because the benefits of the technology in reduced deaths and trauma was so large, she said health professionals should actively lobby for their adoption as early as possible.

“Because of these huge benefits, the more of us pushing the message the better,” Professor Pettigrew said.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 08 Nov 2016