Driverless Cars — Public Health Solution or the New Face of Automania?

By Nicholas Freudenberg

Last week, the New York Times reported that the driver of a Tesla Model S electric sedan was killed in an accident when the car was in self-driving mode. This was the first known death involving a vehicle being driven by itself by means of computer software, sensors, cameras and radar. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that the crash occurred when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla, and the car failed to apply the brakes.  Some observers labeled the accident a setback for driverless cars.

Do driverless cars offer a new path to reducing the premature deaths and preventable injuries that automobiles cause?  Or are they yet another business strategy of the automobile industry — now in partnership with the burgeoning tech sector — to profit at the expense of public health?   Let’s consider the arguments and evidence that can inform this debate.

More than a century ago, Henry Hale Bliss was the first person killed by a motor vehicle crash in the United States.  On September 13, 1899 he exited a streetcar at West 74th Street and Central Park West in New York City, when an electric-powered taxicab struck him and crushed his head and chest. He died from his injuries the next morning. Arthur Smith, the driver of the taxicab, was arrested and charged with manslaughter but was acquitted on the grounds that he had no malice, nor was he negligent.

In the public debates that followed this and subsequent automobile deaths, some planners and transportation advocates argued for a different, less dangerous system of transportation. The opposition of the automobile and tire industries defeated that alternative and since then the automobile industry –in alliance with other industries, highway builders and developers—has been the default planner for American cities and suburbs, retail outlets and transportation systems.

Driverless cars were first developed by engineers at Google about a decade ago. By 2015, four states including Nevada, Florida, California and Michigan –as well as the city of Washington DC had made driverless cars legal.

A Google Driverless Car
A Google Driverless Car. Credit.

Recently, the auto industry has shown great interest in smart cars and driverless technologies for passenger cars and developed partnerships with companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple to explore these options. While driverless cars may have the potential to reduce motor vehicle deaths and injuries and perhaps automobile pollution, they are unlikely to reduce inactivity, now associated with up to 5 million premature deaths a year.  Ford, General Motors and other companies’ decision to invest in driverless technologies rather than rapid urban and national mass transit systems ensure that alternative transportation systems are less likely to be developed. In January 2016, reported The Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration proposed to spend nearly $4 billion in a decade to accelerate the acceptance of driverless cars on U.S. roads and curb traffic fatalities and travel delays, a decision that will maintain our autocentric transportation for decades to come.

For the most part, public health experts have not weighed in on the public health impact of driverless cars.   One exception was a symposium on driverless cars at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health last March.  Panelists gave a mostly positive view of driverless cars.  Speakers included Mark R. Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who said autonomous vehicles could be game-changing in terms of saving lives, noting that 32,675 of which were lost on U.S. roadways in 2014. “Technology is a proven way for us to go after saving those lives,” he said, citing seat belts and airbags as examples. Others speakers came from Google, Stanford’s Center for Automotive Research, and the New England University Transportation Center at MIT.

A columnist at The Atlantic speculated that self-driving cars could save 300,000 lives per decade in the United States, but provided no evidence to support this claim other than the promise they could “eliminate” roadway deaths.

By focusing only on technological issues — can the computer systems be designed to avert the type of death that occurred last May? — the debate on driverless cars misses an opportunity to a deeper discussion on whether this approach represents the best solution for America’s transportation system and built environment.  It closes the door on consideration of whether other technologies — high speed trains, re-designed bicycles, street cars, ferries, urban design that enables active transportation — could contribute more to public well-being and satisfaction that self-driving cars.

At its core, the debate on driverless cars juxtaposes two value systems that shape the perspectives of its proponents and opponents.  For supporters, driverless cars replace what the auto industry has long seen as the most important cause of auto injuries and deaths:  careless, distracted or unskilled drivers.  Self-driving cars meet two of the ideal characteristics for capitalism’s favored solutions to social problems: they give more control to industry than to individuals; require more, not less consumption of scare resources; and generate new opportunities for profits and government subsidies.

For critics, even if driverless cars do reduce automobile injuries and deaths—a good outcome, to be sure– they fail to address other dimensions of the public health harm from autocentrism.

Over the last century, as autos became the dominant form of transportation, they crowded out alternative use of public space. Traffic made streets unsafe for children’s play or pedestrians; auto-induced urban sprawl made travel to work, school or shopping too distant for walking. Crime in urban neighborhoods isolated by highways and segregated by housing policy made residents fear outdoor activity. Once a public infrastructure for autos was built, the auto industry lobbied to maintain it, making public funds for more active transport less available. Driverless cars address none of these problems.

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