Would You Be On Board With a Self-Driving Ambulance?

5:27 minutes

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Imagine calling an ambulance during a medical emergency. After it arrives and the paramedics stabilize the patient, they load the patient onto the ambulance…and it drives off under its own control. Would you want to be on board?     

[Do you know what’s in your medical record?]

With companies looking into autonomous vehicles for everything from personal transportation to freight trucking, it’s no surprise that the possibility of autonomous emergency vehicles has been proposed as well. And while a self-driving ambulance might free up medical personnel to provide better care, and could potentially even lead to a safer, smoother ride, regular people aren’t so sure about the idea. A study conducted by researchers from the Florida Institute of Technology and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University found that a majority of adults surveyed were significantly less willing to be transported in a driverless ambulance compared with a conventional one. Stephen Rice, an associate professor of human factors at Embry-Riddle and one of the authors of the study, says that education and evolving attitudes may be key to getting people to accept the idea of an ambulance with no driver.

Segment Guests

Stephen Rice

Stephen Rice is an associate professor of human factors at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: And now, it’s time to play Good Thing, Bad Thing.


Because every story has a flip side. Now imagine, you have an accident, you call 911, and an ambulance arrives. The EMTs load you in, and the ambulance drives off on its own– a robotic vehicle. A self-driving ambulance. Would you want that? Researchers with the Florida Institute of Technology and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University looked at that question. And they found that’s not everybody’s cup of tea.

Joining me now to talk about the good and the bad is Stephen Rice, associate professor of human factors at Embry-Riddle, and one of the authors of that study. Welcome to Science Friday.

STEPHEN RICE: Thank you, Ira. I appreciate you having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Let’s talk about the good thing. What is the good thing about this? Why would we want an autonomous ambulance?

STEPHEN RICE: Well, so the good things are at least three-fold. First, it’s safer. We know that driverless vehicles rarely have accidents that are caused by the automation. The accidents that have been reported are usually due to human error from other drivers. Second, it should be faster and smoother ride. The autopilot should be able to more efficiently perform its task and get to the hospital more quickly– which as you know, in a traumatic situation, is absolutely what we want to see.

And then third, you get two paramedics in the back working on you instead of one. That’s a big deal for you, particularly, if you’re in a critical situation, and one of the paramedics may need to call a doctor for a prescription. The other one can still be working on you during that period.

IRA FLATOW: And your study found that people aren’t convinced this is a good thing.

STEPHEN RICE: No, they’re not. I’ve been doing a lot of research on autopilots in airplanes and cars for some time now. And then, I met Joe Keebler, who is a medical human factors guy. And along with Scott Winter and Rion Besa, we decided to take a look at the driverless ambulances, because that seems to be the logical future step in driverless cars.

So we conducted three separate studies. We found that about over half of 1,000 US adults were significantly less willing to ride in the drive in the driverless ambulance, even when they would receive care from two paramedics instead of one. And quite a few of them were very negative about that and would absolutely refuse.

IRA FLATOW: And so are they afraid that the ambulance is just too dangerous? They don’t trust it?

STEPHEN RICE: Yes, in part. Particularly, with our male participants, the male participants showed quite a range of emotions from fear to happiness, which was odd. The ones who were willing to get in the ambulance were happy about it. The ones who were not willing to get it were afraid.

On the other hand, female participants were even more negative about the driverless ambulances, but their emotional reaction tended to be anger rather than fear or happiness. So you could argue actually that men were more emotional in their responses, because they showed more emotions to justify their reasoning.

IRA FLATOW: I’m tempted to say why am I not surprised about this?

STEPHEN RICE: Well yeah, I mean, your opinion is certainly not unusual. We’re finding that people tend to fear that which they do not know. And frankly, most folks don’t know much about autopilots or driverless vehicles. We know they’re out there, but really, does the common person know how it works? And when things are opaque and there’s not a lot of information, then you tend to have situations where people don’t want to play.

IRA FLATOW: But these are going to be the future, right? Uber is working on driverless cars in Pittsburgh. Driverless ambulances are going to happen, wouldn’t you think?

STEPHEN RICE: Yes, I truly believe that. And I think that we’re seeing that driverless cars have come a lot faster than we thought they would. And the next logical step is driverless ambulances, buses, and whatnot. There’s also some bad points about this. I mean, if you have people who are not willing to ride in ambulances and/or would be afraid to get in them, then you’re adding a great deal of stress to a patient who is already in a traumatic situation. And that’s the last thing we want to do.

And we’ve seen cases where human drivers are bullying autopiloted cars, cutting them off knowing that they’ll back off. And so we definitely want to take this a little more slowly, make sure that this is going to work out, and educate people to let them know how safe it is, and how they can benefit from it. And perhaps, even offer some free rides.

IRA FLATOW: You know, that’s a new hashtag, autopilot bully. I haven’t seen that one yet or heard about that one. But I’m glad you brought that up, Stephen.

STEPHEN RICE: Yeah, it’s actually just happening. Because now, we’re getting more driverless cars. And people are realizing well, they’ll back off if I just cut them off. And so that’s what some people are tending to do.

STEPHEN RICE: All right. You heard it first here. Stephen Rice, associate professor of human factors at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Great place to learn how to fly. Thanks Stephen, for taking time to be with us today.

And we’re going to come back, and we’re going to take a trip to a future-flooded submerged New York with Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s his new book, he’s going to share New York 2140 with us. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.

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