The latest developments in the car industry point towards the realization that within years we will travel by driverless cars everywhere. These automated vehicles also have a huge potential in revolutionizing healthcare. Let me show you how.

Will learning how to drive become an obsolete skill?

Heading home to his daughter’s fourth birthday celebration, 37-year-old attorney, Joshua Neally suffered a pulmonary embolism in his moving car on a highway in July. For his greatest luck, the car was a new Tesla Model X with an autopilot function. It enabled the car to drive to the nearest hospital, while he suffered in the driver’s seat. Neally reached the hospital, manually parked the Tesla – and survived the incident due to the quick healthcare service.

It is inevitable that automation is the future. In spite of the fact, that there are many controversies around Tesla’s new developments due to such unfortunate car crashes, as the death of Joshua Brown driving a Tesla on autopilot. (As some point out, he was driving rather recklessly – he was apparently watching a Harry Potter movie at the wheel).

Driverless Car

And not such a distant one, for that matter. According to some estimates, driverless cars might hit the roads as early as 2020-2025. We can only grasp dimly what a huge change it entails! Can you imagine that you might not have to teach your kid how to drive because it will become an obsolete skill? Can you imagine not saying at a dinner party: “I’m sorry I cannot drink, I’m driving”, because you will get home after a couple of beers safely and without a penalty for “impaired driving” with your driverless car anyway?

Imagine what huge possibilities the developments in the vehicle and car industry has for the future of medicine! What if, after the dinner party, your own car will suggest you to take on autopilot because it measured the level of alcohol in your blood through a built-in sensor? What if it also tells you, you’d better drink a glass of water and not tell your wife why you are late again?

The Dream of Driverless Driving

People have had a special relationship to their means of transportation for centuries. Just think about the horses, one of the smartest animals on the planet! They know the way home, they pay attention to their environment, and they signal dangers. With the appearance of cars, these special “features” seem to be lost, while the yearning for them has not disappeared. Do you remember the 1968 movie, The Love Bug? When the cute VW Beetle, Herbie comes to life and helps a race car driver win a championship? Or the popular 1980s series, the Knight Rider, where David Hasselhoff had a very special vehicle, KITT?

Although it seems to be quite impossible currently to have such a relationship between a car-owner and the car, the dream about the smart vehicle has never ceased to exist.

The first driverless cars appeared as early as in the 1920s. Since the introduction of an early model by Houdina Radio Control in 1925, which was controlled by a second car following close behind, the technology went a long way. The first autonomous cars of the type we know today were developed in the late 1970s and 1980s. Self-contained vehicles equipped with the necessary sensors, processors, and outputs to theoretically drive themselves through typical traffic without special external inputs. The pioneer of the project was Ernst Dickmanns, with whose help in 1995 as part of the EUREKA PROMETHEUS project the VAMP autonomous vehicle drove nearly 2000 km at up to 130 km/h.

Where do we stand today with driverless car developments?

In the last ten years, autonomous car research has continued to shift from universities to manufacturers. Companies including BMW, Volkswagen, and GM have begun testing their own self-driving vehicles. During the years, the most well-known project became the Google Self-Driving Car project, initiated in 2009. By September 2016, Google’s cars have already driven more than 3 million kilometers in autonomous mode. They only had 13 accidents, all caused by a driver in another vehicle.

But other companies are also speeding up their developments to be able to compete in the fierce race. At least 19 companies ranging from Tesla and Google through social, ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft until traditional car companies, such as Toyota, BMW or Volvo announced that they are working on (semi)-autonomous vehicles. Car companies are taking two different strands when it comes to driverless cars. They either experiment with semi-autonomous features which they will roll out over time, or they are working on completely driverless cars, which they will release later.

Driverless Cars

In September, Uber started offering rides in self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, a notoriously demanding urban environment. The company teamed up with Volvo to fulfill Uber’s objective to replace its more than 1 million human drivers with robots – as quickly as possible. Habitants of Pittsburgh are already able to summon self-driving cars from their mobile phones. Humans in the driver’s seats supervise the vehicles at the moment – but not for long.

So far, the biggest obstacles to development seem to be regulatory agencies and the fact that people are not quite familiar with the boundaries of automated driving. Although there are promising signs for change. Five American states and the District of Columbia (Nevada, Florida, Michigan, Virginia, and California) have already passed legislation allowing the operation of autonomous cars on their highways. In September, the US government issued new federal guidelines that are clearly designed to speed up the development of self-driving cars.

Uber in Pittsburgh - Driverless Car

How will the latest developments in the car industry help healthcare?

Today, we can only measure health parameters and vital signs at the so-called point-of-care. This can be a physician’s office, the clinic, the hospital or a clinical laboratory. You have to go there, wait patiently in front of the doctor’s office and eventually someone will examine your symptoms.

However, with the revolution taking place in portable diagnostics, algorithms and sensors, the act of measuring health parameters and vital signs becomes more convenient, mobile and cheaper. Do you remember the medical tricorder from Star Trek? It will become a reality soon as such devices as Viatom Checkme already have hit the market. Besides, Artificial Intelligence is waiting in line to redesign medicine and our whole understanding of healthcare. And don’t forget how many healthcare wearables and tiny sensors are already available to the public. They measure your blood pressure, your heart rate, or whether your food contains gluten. Their list is getting longer day by day to ensure a healthy lifestyle.

Fitness Trackers and Sensors - Laziness Kills Healthcare

Thus, trends are pointing towards actively using the time someone spends with doing sports, working or only performing such basic activities as eating for measuring vital signs. The GP or any other doctor can use this information in case it is needed. And this results in shortening the waiting time and making healthcare more effective. Driverless cars fit perfectly into this picture.

1) Driverless cars as points-of-care

The car will be a place to measure vital signs passively and store our data in clouds. Then it will either notify the patient if there is something wrong or keep a finger on our pulse on the long-term.

The Car of the Future as a Clinic - Driverless Car

German car manufacturer, Mercedes thinks the future involves driverless cars acting as personal assistants of the owners. They also believe such vehicles must incorporate health sensors. Mercedes-Benz salesman Rob Tinkham described how one of their cars can already tell if the driver has become too tired to drive. He added that the seat belt, the steering wheel or practically anything the driver might touch, can be used as a biometric sensor to gain information about the driver. It could help detect a drop in blood sugar or an imminent heart attack. This information will become increasingly valuable as the population continues to age.

Also, living an unhealthy life will become a luxury. Insurance companies will catch every bad decision affecting our health with the obtained huge amount of data sets analysed by AI such as IBM Watson. I believe that driving a traditional car will be possible, but insurance companies will put a high price on them. Compared to driverless cars, which never have an accident and notify their users about every health-related occurrence, driving a vehicle will count as sumptuous.


2) Fewer accidents

Well, let’s be honest, as the statistics show, we are bad drivers. We get tired, make bad decisions and have accidents. The World Health Organization estimates that without any action road traffic injuries will become the fifth leading cause of worldwide death by 2030, accounting for 3.6% of the total. Currently, 1.25 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes and between 20 and 50 million more people suffer non-fatal injuries, with many incurring a disability as a result of their injury.

More than two million of the car accidents in the US involve injuries where patients are seen in emergency rooms and often admitted to hospitals. Emergency rooms could lose millions of patients a year. Hospitals would have hundreds of thousands fewer people who needed to stay overnight, if driverless car technology was introduced in the near future. Both trauma and rehabilitation centers could experience significant changes in patient volume.

Imagine how many lives could be saved and how much time we could spend on useful skills and activities, if we let robots drive instead. We would not have to learn how to drive, would not waste time on driving, trying to park our vehicles or nagging other people because of their driving skills.

Cross Road, Metropolis - Driverless Cars
India, Mumbai

3) More freedom for the elderly and disabled

Driverless cars have the power to keep an aging and/or disabled population independent in their homes for longer periods of time – even if they cannot drive. With more than 43 million people in the US now 65 and older, and 10,000 more hitting that mark every day, aging Americans are a natural target market for self-driving vehicles. Mobility needs — getting to the doctor or the grocery store, seeing family and friends — become paramount for seniors. Especially since 79 percent live in suburbs and rural areas. In Japan, the number of the aging population is also soaring, and elderly disproportionately cause and get injured in traffic accidents.

Google and Toyota noticed the societal changes and are responding to the needs with driverless cars. “For the first time in history, older people will be the lifestyle leaders of a new technology,” said Joseph Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab in Cambridge. “Younger people may have had smartphones in their hands first, but it’s the 50-plus consumers who will be first with smart cars.”

Also, when nurse leaders plan for the follow-up care of high risk patients,  this technology could be very powerful in ensuring that patients keep their appointments. For example, the hospital can send them a car to pick them up. It will become easy since automakers and technology companies are using AI to help teach the cars not only to avoid collisions and read traffic signs, but also to respond to different types and needs of passengers.

Driverless Cars for the Elderly - Driverless Car

I truly believe driverless cars are the future. Car manufacturers should involve as many healthcare-related innovations into automated cars as possible. They would miss a huge opportunity from their part to make the life of millions easier, more comfortable and simply better, if they did otherwise.

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