In the modern era, more people are dwelling in urban areas compared to rural regions. The urban environment can engender multiple health pathways for its population. These pathways are physical activity, air pollution, access to health services, and transport. Urban transportation policies are one of the main actions through which urban environments can either undermine or improve health. Recent developments in automation technology cause transportation innovations. For instance, AVs are considered a major challenging technology in the transportation industry with the capability to make considerable changes in travel behaviors and the built environment.
Due to the public health consequences of autonomous vehicles, public health activists have a distinct role to play in designing transportation policies that can increase public health benefits. To do this, supplementary policy research will be required to investigate the public health impacts of AVs on (1) road casualty prevention, (2) environmental health protection, (3) healthy aging promotion, (4) non-communicable disease reduction, (5) land use regulation, and (6) labor market disruption. These cases can be utilized by policymakers to determine the most helpful AV policy for health and welfare. In the following parts, we will discuss each item in detail.
Image Credit: Dr. Soheil Sohrabi, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2210670720306776
Road Casualty Prevention: Vehicle crashes can be considered one of the greatest sources of disability and fatality in the world. So, it is important for policymakers to scrutinize the rationales behind this incident. One of the main reasons for accidents is human error. According to the Road Safety Association, more than 90 percent of vehicle crashes are caused by human error such as driver drowsiness, distraction, and loss of consciousness. Results of research work show that AVs can reduce accident numbers and insurance costs by 90%. However, this study has disregarded some points. For example, the investigations by Groves and Kalra reveal that if the total vehicle travel is escalated by automation technology, safety benefits may noticeably decrease. Furthermore, trust in automation may discourage drivers from concentrating on the road. Therefore, to better understand such effects, trip, mode, and route choice models should be modified to include the impacts of autonomous vehicles on safety. Moreover, as more automation techniques are utilized, different errors (e.g., exposure of AVs to cyber threats and the loss of sensor functionality in inclement weather conditions) can be created. If such errors are not appropriately managed, they may cause critical safety consequences. So, road safety problems must be analyzed during the transition to autonomous vehicles by determining how conventional and automated vehicles communicate on the road.
Environmental Health Protection: Transportation can have noticeable impacts on environmental health in various aspects including private car ownership, fuel consumption, and traffic flow (Dora and Phillips, 2000). Therefore, understanding and evaluating the varying effects of AVs on environmental health will be a global concern. Studies on the environmental effects of autonomous vehicles have so far revealed that these impacts depend on a wide range of factors including the driving behavior of AVs, the capability of the transportation network to interact with these vehicles, and the consumer preference which is relevant to private ownership of AVs (Moro et al., 2014). The impacts of AVs on greenhouse gas emissions which cause global climate change are still ambiguous, as some studies show that the presence of autonomous vehicles in the transportation network can decrease environmental impacts such as air pollution (Brown et al., 2014; Greenblatt & Shahin, 2015) while others acknowledge that increasing vehicle-miles traveled can almost double such emissions. (Wadood et al., 2016).
Healthy Aging Promotion: Although the swift fluctuation in the worldwide population causes a challenge to policymakers (Shergold et al., 2015), autonomous driving has the potential to improve mobility for the elderly. Also, they can concurrently avoid the collision risks caused by old drivers. Furthermore, autonomous driving can increase independence, where improved mobility and safety provide well-being for old people. Thus, it will be suggested to research the acceptance, learning, and use of AVs among elderly drivers (Rhiu et al., 2015).
Non-Communicable Disease (NCD) Reduction: Although AVs will lead to some advantages for NCD reduction (e.g., reducing driving-related psychological stress level), they will play a trivial role in decreasing the sedentary nature of sitting in a motor vehicle. In other words, an increase in the use of AVs may reduce walking, cycling, public transportation use, and other forms of physical activity during the day. Hence, people’s physical activity will be diminished, and they will be more exposed to metabolic obesity and NCDs (Biswas et al., 2015). Nevertheless, it remains dubious how folk will compensate for this ease in their transportation procedure, whether they will spend less time traveling or engage in more leisure-time physical activities, and there are scanty related research works on the impact of vehicle use on physical activity and weight-related consequences (Shoham et al., 2015). So, this change in behavior should be further studied as governments require to address the decline in NCD through transportation policy.
Land Use Regulation: The connection between the built environment and health has recently been a developing research area for public health (e.g., Chen and Zhou, 2016; Frank et al., 2004, 2007; Gordon-Larsen et al., 2006; Renalds et al., 2010). The widespread acceptance of AVs will substantially influence how cities are managed and how their built environments are formed, and thus on the health aspects of the urban environment. Recent studies propose that urban planners at the microscopic scale are aware of AVs, but there is not any research work including AVs in large-scale planning due to the uncertainty of prevailing technology in the not-too-distant future (Guerra, 2016).
Labor Market Disruption: With the advent of AVs as a predominant technology, there is great potential for autonomous vehicle technology to supplant taxi drivers, bus operators, delivery drivers, and freight operators around the world. AVs have a speculative future. In particular, although they can boost economic output through innovation, they may reduce job opportunities in labor-intensive transportation parts.
In this context, we took a brief look at different aspects of the public health implications of AVs. However, this research field has not been comprehensive yet, and many challenges and gaps need to be addressed in future studies.
First of all, AVs’ health implications should not only be limited to the urban regions, and future research is needed to analyze AVs’ effects on rural areas. Furthermore, the changes in travel demand due to various market penetration rates of AVs in the not-too-distant future should be considered for a more precise appraisal of public health impacts (Soteropoulos et al., 2018). Moreover, transportation-related job losses need to be further investigated after AVs’ presence on the transportation network. In general, the supporting plans to mitigate the negative health impacts should be determined so that the community can better accept AVs through the gradual shift to automated driving.