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5 things EMS providers need to know about autonomous vehicles

How are these vehicles affecting the roads now, and how might EMS leverage this technology in the near future?


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By Rachel Zoch, EMS1 BrandFocus Staff

As so-called “self-driving” technology advances, there are more and more stories about autonomous vehicles in the media. Some are positive accounts of the possibilities this technology offers for improved safety or efficiency – others are cautionary tales about crashes and other potential dangers.

Start planning now for autonomous vehicles and consider how assistive technologies could help improve safety, efficiency and patient care for your agency and community. (image/iStock)
Start planning now for autonomous vehicles and consider how assistive technologies could help improve safety, efficiency and patient care for your agency and community. (image/iStock)

But what does autonomous vehicle technology mean for EMS? How will self-driving cars interact with ambulances? Will ambulances themselves become autonomous?

This article answers five key questions to help providers understand what the increasing use of autonomous vehicles means for EMS:

1. What are autonomous vehicles?

Whether you call it a driverless or self-driving car or an autonomous vehicle, we’re talking about a vehicle that can guide itself without human direction. Tech advisory company Gartner defines an autonomous vehicle as “one that can drive itself from a starting point to a predetermined destination in ‘autopilot’ mode using various in-vehicle technologies and sensors, including adaptive cruise control, GPS navigation technology and laser and radar sensors” to avoid collisions.

As use of this technology becomes more widespread, it’s important that EMS leaders consider how it might affect emergency response, whether it’s new road safety protocols for ambulance operators or adopting self-driving technology for the fleet.

2. How are autonomous vehicles used by the public today?

Techopedia says, “Driverless cars, including Google's autonomous car design, have logged thousands of hours on American roads, but they are not yet commercially available on a large scale.” However, you may already be using driving assistance technology – think about cruise control, or the newer automatic braking and lane sensors now widely available in passenger vehicles.

Currently, only a handful of states allow road operation of autonomous vehicles, but Uber has been testing its self-driving cars, and Waymo (the self-driving unit of Google/Alphabet) is working on a self-driving taxi service with pilot programs across the country.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 29 states and Washington D.C. had enacted legislation related to autonomous vehicles as of the end of August 2018. For example, a 2018 bill in New York authorizes the state police to create a plan to help law enforcement and first responders interact with autonomous vehicles in emergency situations. To better prepare yourself and your agency, check out the laws in your state with NCSL’s autonomous vehicles legislative database.

NHTSA recognizes 5 levels of vehicle automation.

3. What are the key safety concerns for passengers, other drivers and emergency responders?

Driverless technology presents a number of pros and cons, but it’s important to keep in mind some of its specific limits in regard to safety:

  • Most crashes involving these vehicles are due to limitations of their sensors and software.
  • Software doesn’t account for every adverse weather condition or unexpected challenge like roadblocks, construction or a cow in the road.
  • GPS accuracy can be spotty.
  • Just like any other computer, these systems can fall prey to hackers.

A driverless Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona in March 2018. But Americans were already skeptical. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center a year before that fatality revealed that just over half of Americans said they were somewhat or very worried about the development of autonomous vehicles and not keen on the idea of riding in one. The two most common reasons cited for these opinions were safety and fear of giving up control to a machine.

Multiple studies show that many people remain skeptical of ceding control entirely – but nearly 20 percent of people in the Pew survey said they believed a driverless car would be safer than a car driven by a human. NHTSA’s 2016 fatal traffic crash data backs this up, citing “human choices that are linked to 94 percent of serious crashes.”

4. What are the key benefits of autonomous vehicles for reducing vehicle collisions and motor vehicle-related injuries?

More than 37,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2016, according to NHTSA, and research shows that human error – inattention, speeding, etc. – is to blame for most of these incidents. Self-driving technologies hold great potential to reduce the number of crashes and save thousands of lives by removing the potential for human error.

Autonomous vehicles are governed by software, so they can’t be distracted or make choices to speed or run a red light. A 2015 McKinsey & Company report predicts that driverless car technology could reduce fatalities by 90 percent by 2050 and suggests that fleets will lead the way. So how might this apply to ambulances, other than a potential reduction in motor vehicle accident calls?

5. How is assisted driving technology likely to be used by EMS in the next 5 to 10 years?

EMS agencies are likely to see a variety of applications for – and impacts of – this technology in the next decade. Collision avoidance technology is already being built into new passenger vehicles, and smart vehicle features are increasingly likely to become part of the electronics built into new ambulances. Your next ambulance might use autonomous technology to parallel park at an emergency incident or back into the emergency department ambulance parking space.

Greg Friese, EMS1 Editor-in-Chief, has already written about collision avoidance technology that could reduce the frequency of crashes between ambulances and passenger vehicles. Many of these features are already available on the market, such as automatic braking and lane detection alerts. EMS leaders should be open to upgrading their ambulance fleets to realize these safety benefits.

Communicating with other vehicles on the road is another potential benefit, especially given the debate over using lights and sirens. EMS1 columnist Tim Nowak predicts that assistive technology will alert drivers through their vehicles of oncoming emergency vehicles. A recent patent for Waymo reveals the next step: The vehicle will be able to detect emergency vehicles by their lights and sirens and automatically pull over.

EMS leaders should also consider how assistive technologies might change the ability of medics to focus solely on patient care rather than dividing their attention between the patient and the journey. A “driverless ambulance” could enable both providers to work with the patient during the drive to the hospital, leveraging other technologies to communicate with the receiving ED, or, as EMS1 advisory board member Ryan Greenberg suggests, “allow providers to review protocols on the way to call or let one provider rest during super-rural, long-distance transports.”

Additionally, some communities are already using ride-hailing services, such as Uber and Lyft, for non-emergent patient transport. This can be especially effective as part of a community paramedicine program. As autonomous vehicles become more commonplace, these transports could potentially be handled by a driverless car.

Start planning now for autonomous vehicles and consider how assistive technologies could help improve safety, efficiency and patient care for your agency and community.

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