As automated vehicle (AV) technology advances and becomes more mainstream, further research should be conducted to understand how self-driving vehicles will impact population health and well-being.

The focus of much of the research and discussion surrounding AVs lies predominantly in their impact on road safety. However, they can transform our way of living in many other areas. Social equity, the natural environment, and our constructed environment will impact whether AV technology has beneficial or adverse effects on our health.

In a recent University of Toronto-affiliated paper, researchers explored these themes and others in order to examine the potential impacts of AVs on health outcomes and lifestyles.

What are automated vehicles?

An automated car’s ability to function independently of human input is reliant on software that collects information from sensors and video cameras on the car. These devices help the software understand the position of the vehicle and its surroundings, especially its position in relation to other vehicles, pedestrians, traffic lights, and road signs.

The software then uses this information to process sensory input in order to send instructions to the car’s actuators, which are devices in charge of the car’s acceleration, braking, and steering.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has defined six levels of driving automation, ranging from level 0, fully manual; to level 5, fully automated. The levels are based on whether the human or the automated system is mostly responsible for monitoring the driving environment.

It is interesting to note that the SAE differentiates between the terms “automated” and “autonomous,” and does not use “autonomous.” The term autonomy has implications of self awareness beyond the electro-mechanical.

A completely autonomous car would be able to make its own choices based on its own awareness, which is not the same as automated driving.

A self-driving car like a Tesla would be categorized under level 3, conditional automation. Its autopilot feature allows for the vehicle to have environmental detection capabilities, steer, accelerate, and brake, but human supervision is still required to operate the vehicle.

This is an exciting time as AV technology is rapidly evolving. However, the health impacts of AVs should also be highlighted.

How are AVs changing human health?

The co-authors of the study assessed the literature in order to investigate the implications that AVs could have on human health.

Several of the key themes explored were road safety, the natural environment, lifestyle, social equity, and the urban environment.

It should be no surprise that most of the existing literature is concentrated on road safety; the implementation of fully automated vehicles could revolutionize mobility and transportation as we know it.

For example, AVs have the potential to play a key role in collision avoidance. As human error is the most common reason for vehicle collisions, higher levels of AV technology could mitigate this risk factor.

However, while AVs could reduce the stress of operating a vehicle and increase the enjoyment of travel, an over-reliance on AVs could also result in an increase in sedentary behaviour.

For example, humans might switch to using AVs for trips that normally involve active forms of travel, like walking or bicycling, or rely on AVs for longer trips instead of rail or air travel.

The impact of AVs on the climate crisis

As AV technology becomes more prevalent, so does its role in the climate crisis. The literature concerning fuel efficiency or emissions and AVs was found to be divided on whether the implications of AVs are more beneficial or harmful to the natural environment.

Some academics argue that AVs could allow for a “less carbon-intensive transportation system if the majority of AVs are electrically powered.” Others argue that AVs will only perpetuate the existing dependency on cars, which will require more road infrastructure, and have more detrimental impacts on the environment and our respiratory and cardiovascular health.

The study emphasizes that the environmental impacts would have to be determined by the model of AV ownership and access, and the type of fuel source.

The impact of AVs on social inequality

Social equity was also found to be another theme commonly explored in literature, as the advent of self-driving cars is predicted to “improve accessibility for differently-abled populations” and “improve social connectivity. ”

However, this would depend on whether the AVs have a shared or personal ownership model. If private ownership is the predominant model, high income populations would benefit more while lower income populations could “face decreased access to transportation,” or other barriers that come with reliance on public transportation.

Opposingly, a shared model of AVs would provide many benefits for human health in regards to reclaiming public spaces and opening up more green space for human activity. For example, the “traffic efficiency of AVs could free up space in the right-of-way to allow for cycling infrastructure and allow for wider sidewalks.”

Furthermore, a shared model of AVs would allow for reclaiming parking lots as part of the public realm and present opportunities for affordable housing or urban green spaces.

Policies, AVs, and health outcomes

While AVs are anticipated to improve human health outcomes, the measures that can be implemented to protect humans are also crucial.

In an email to The Varsity, a Toronto Public Health spokesperson emphasized that as AV technology becomes more prevalent, the evidence related to AVs and population health expands, it is important that health impacts are monitored to identify trends.

When asked whether regulations of this industry could help balance the positive and negative outcomes of AVs, and whether regulations would be a sufficient measure on their own, the spokesperson wrote, “Processes to develop regulations and policies that govern AV introduction and use should consider all potential health and equity impacts. This will support identification and mitigation of potential negative impacts.”

The Toronto Public Health spokesperson added that consumer education may be helpful, such as by informing consumers of the benefits of choosing an electric vehicle versus one that uses fossil fuel emissions.

This information “would be most effective as a supplement to evidence-informed, health-protective regulations and policies,” according to the spokesperson.