Forget Cars – Would You Ever Trust a Driverless Ambulance?

We explore the pros and cons of driverless emergency response vehicles – and whether they’re even possible

driverless emergency vehicles

Not long after this spring’s controversy when a Florida man died while his Tesla’s autopilot feature was in use, a man in Missouri claimed that his Tesla Model X helped save his life.

Joshua Neally, a Springfield, MO-area lawyer, was on his way home from work when he was suddenly overcome by sharp pains in his chest and abdomen, pains that he would later learn was a pulmonary embolism, reports KY3 News. Neally directed his Tesla to the closest hospital and let autopilot take over the driving. He made it to the hospital in time to be treated for this potentially fatal condition, and the incident is being touted as a strong counterpoint to those decrying the safety of driverless vehicles.

Neally said that it might have taken longer for an ambulance to reach and then transport him to the hospital, so he was fortunate to have his Tesla. Though it’s possible his vehicle may have noticed if Neally had passed out (even in autopilot, the driver has to touch the steering wheel at regular intervals), and would have safely driven to the side of the road and stopped, which could have been dangerous for Neally. In this scenario, however, Tesla made a customer for life in Neally who credits the car and its technology for saving his life.

inside emergency vehicles

Can Driverless Vehicles Take Over in an Emergency?

Fully autonomous cars are still in development, but despite potential legal and philosophical roadblocks, most industry experts are certain we will someday see self-piloted vehicles on our roads. We’ve explored the potential benefits and pitfalls of driverless cars and even trucks, but lately we’ve been wondering: could driverless emergency vehicles be in our future as well? And what kind of technology would a driverless ambulance or firetruck require?

No, Driverless Emergency Vehicles Would Just Create More Problems

Driverless Ambulances and Firetrucks Would Not be Agile Enough

  • In an emergency, quick response is everything. Firetrucks and ambulances have to navigate through traffic quickly and effectively, and they often exceed speed limits, run red lights, and even drive against traffic in the race to ferry patients to the nearest hospital as quickly as possible. There’s just too much reactive and technical driving involved, too many on-the-fly decisions that must be made, and too much at stake for humans to hand over that responsibility to technology, no matter how advanced. Even if autonomous vehicles become the norm for regular passenger cars, human drivers will always out-maneuver technology when it comes to driving vehicles like fire trucks and ambulances.

Infrastructure Would Not Support Emergency Driverless Vehicles

  • Infrastructure updates would be essential if driverless emergency vehicles are to happen, but they may take substantial time and money to complete. “Connected cars require a nation-wide transformation of our cities, and we are nowhere near ready,” writes Kevin Curry at The Hill. He argues that autonomous vehicles in general—and autonomous emergency response vehicles in particular—will never work without “intelligent public infrastructure,” and public infrastructure across the country is currently in such disrepair that he wonders if we’ll ever be able to accomplish the task of revamping roadways to accommodate driverless vehicles.
There is just too much at stake for humans to hand over that responsibility to technology.

driverless firetrucks

Yes, Driverless Emergency Vehicles Will Save Lives

Paramedics Could Focus on Patients Rather than Driving

  • EMT teams would be more efficient because they could all be actively treating patients or communicating with staff at the waiting hospital rather than driving.

Technology Could Mitigate Human Error

  • EMTs are humans, and humans make mistakes. In Alexandria, Virginia, one rookie EMT got lost on the way to the hospital after picking up a man with a gunshot wound, who later died. Driverless technology would presumably avoid a navigating error like this.

Ambulances Will Handle Traffic Better

  • Driverless vehicles will ultimately be able to (and, actually, will have to) communicate with each other, which has the potential to fundamentally change our traffic patterns. For driverless emergency vehicles, imagine if all other vehicles on the road could immediately pull to the side in a synchronized, safe way to let an ambulance through. Or imagine traffic signals adjusting to accommodate a pack of fire trucks on the way to an emergency, keeping cross-traffic stopped at a red light while maintaining green lights for the trucks to pass through quickly.

Emergency Driverless Vehicle Infrastructure Might Be More Affordable than We Think

  • The necessary driverless vehicle technical infrastructure might not be as expensive as some people estimate, and it might be easier to install than alternative infrastructure plans. For example, LiDAR devices could line 430 miles of I-95 between Boston and Washington, D.C. for $4-$15 million, writes Backchannel. Compare that with the $200 million Washington, D.C. spent on a 2.2-mile streetcar system and the fancy new tech looks pretty good.
  • Advances in things like Fifth Generation wireless (5G) are under development and will be useful for driverless vehicles, writes Backchannel. In particular, a 5G system would include dense wireless networks, faster connections, and broadcast capabilities that will allow for large distributions of mapping data without delays. And sensor technology (for radar, lidar, and cameras), which is how driverless cars “see,” is getting cheaper, too. Though sensors for driverless vehicles now cost $75,000, LiDAR sensors for $500 or even $100 are being introduced to the market, and the drop in costs would allow for roadside sensors along streets.

The Verdict?

It’ll all come down to the car-to-car communication.

If vehicles and roadways evolve to accommodate connected car technology that allows every vehicle on the road to communicate and synchronize their actions, driverless emergency vehicles could undoubtedly save lives by getting patients to the hospital faster and with more care along the way.

Perhaps fundamentally rethinking how roads work would allow driverless emergency vehicles to function on public roads. If a subway-like system were implemented in which different vehicle types kept to one specified lane, in convoy-fashion, many of the potential pitfalls of driverless cars in general—and driverless emergency vehicles in particular—might be eliminated, writes Fortune.

And even if emergency vehicles never become driverless, driverless passenger cars that are in development are already showing us how the technology will benefit emergency vehicles. Google’s self-driving car, for instance, automatically yields to emergency vehicles, proving self-driving tech will benefit emergency vehicles whether or not they use the technology themselves.


Would you support the use of driverless emergency vehicles?