The Public Health Risks of Self-driving Cars

Often hailed as the safest cars on the market and the future of the automobile industry, self-driving cars have suffered important setbacks following a number of accidents where pedestrians and drivers were either injured or killed.

Presented as environmentally-friendly, autonomous cars are also advertised as being capable of reducing traffic jams, and eliminating the human-error factor in road accidents.

One thing neither Google nor Uber are talking about when they discuss their self-driving car projects in the media, is the technology’s potential to cause health and sanitary issues.

According to public health expert Janet Fleetwood, PhD,

“Although the feasibility of creating an autonomous vehicle that never crashes is debatable and, by some analyses, impossible to achieve–considering the burst of enthusiasm, investment, and effort in autonomous vehicle technology–it is time to reflect on the many public health issues that have not yet been adequately analyzed or discussed.”

While Fleetwood’s paper, Public Health, Ethics, and Autonomous Vehicles, focuses on ethical aspects and crash prevention, there is another important issue that has been seldom analyzed in depth. Namely, if self-driving cars take the place of taxis and human-operated ridesharing services, who will guarantee the vehicles’ sanitary conditions?

Considering that today’s taxis and Uber vehicles sometimes display substandard levels of cleanliness, how is the absence of a driver going to affect that? With lots of people getting on and off the vehicles, the potential for public health hazards will be significant.

All manner of pathogens can thrive in confined spaces like the interior of a car. While it is advisable to take precautions like washing your hands thoroughly after using this type of transportation, not everyone does it, and sometimes nearby facilities to do so are unavailable.

Although there are policies in place to protect commuters from the health risks associated with poor sanitary conditions, in many situations, the responsibility of adhering to those policies is left in the hands of a single taxi or Uber driver.

And while some drivers’ idea of cleanliness may differ from our own, imagine what can happen when that driver is no longer there.

Simply put, unless manufacturers are planning to install pathogen sensors and self-cleaning systems in their self-driving vehicles, cleanliness will not be ensured. Judging from their inability to make a functioning sensor to avoid hitting pedestrians, pathogens are probably the last thing those manufacturers are focusing on right now.

The use of safe and sanitary materials would likely minimize those risks, but again, as manufacturers and operators try to make their cars and services cost efficient, the public will likely have to suffer before self-driving cars become truly safe, in the broad sense of the word.

John Uustal is a Florida-based trial lawyer with a national practice focused on helping people injured by auto defects and other defective products.

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