What lies ahead for emergency services with connected vehicle technology?

We take a look at connected and autonomous vehicles and what their impact may be on the emergency services.

Self-driving vehicles hold the promise to improve road safety and offer new mobility options to millions of people across the globe. Whether they’re saving lives or helping people run errands, commute to work, or drop children off at school, fully self-driving vehicles hold enormous potential to transform people’s lives for the better. Whilst it’s still early days for this new technology, it’s important that strategic thinking, development, rigorous testing and legislation is ready for the shift that is already underway.

The potential impact of connected and autonomous vehicles

The most significant and probably most important impact of the widespread adoption of connected and autonomous vehicles is the potential reduction in road traffic accidents caused by human error. In the UK, 71% of road accidents are due to driver error, and this accounts for almost 12,500 deaths or serious injuries per year. On a global scale, it is estimated that 10 million lives are lost annually as a direct result of driver error.

This is obviously not going to be a quick fix. The costs of widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles are enormous. They include the research and development costs for vehicle manufacturers, the investment to improve the road network infrastructure and adding the communication hardware for the cars to connect to each other and the road itself. In the future, vehicles will be in constant two-way communication with the road and nearby vehicles.

UK Autodrive Project

South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS) NHS Foundation Trust has taken part in a UK trial of connected and autonomous vehicle technology in Milton Keynes.

The project saw SCAS team up with Ford, Jaguar Land Rover and Tata Motors European Technical Centre to demonstrate a range of the latest vehicle technology including self-driving, self-parking and two connected car safety features.

The first safety feature involved an Emergency Vehicle Warning (EVW) system, which alerts drivers when an emergency vehicle is approaching and also indicates which direction it is coming from. The EVW sends a signal directly from the emergency vehicle (ambulance, fire engine, police vehicle) to nearby connected cars. The driver is then informed that the emergency vehicle is approaching and advised to make way for it.

The second trial demonstrated an Electronic Emergency Brake Light (EBBL) feature which gives a warning when another connected car further up the road brakes heavily – potentially giving drivers several additional seconds to avoid a possible collision.

What’s more, UK Autodrive will culminate in Autumn 2018 in a series of reports, including the final project report, final legal and insurance white papers and the final research papers from the Cities Research programme (examining changes in public attitudes towards the technology, the scalability of self-driving vehicle technology and the possible effect that self-driving vehicles might have on congestion levels).

As well as looking back on the learnings of the UK Autodrive project, these reports are intended to provide guidance and direction for future research and development as connected and autonomous vehicles move closer to the mainstream.

Autonomous Ambulances

In addition to the evolution of our personal cars, autonomous ambulances could change how we deliver out-of-hospital emergency care. Without the need for a driver, each ambulance gains an additional frontline expert. Also, if there is no driver, there is no need for the steering wheel and front cabin. Using this space means we can re-design the ambulance, creating new options for the types of treatments that can be administered remotely. If the hospitals and the ambulance network are connected, the hospital can receive live updates from the ambulance regarding the patient en-route. The ambulance could also receive and respond to data from the hospital and re-route patients based on how busy the local hospitals are, which would reduce workload fluctuations across the region.

In the non-acute setting, the efficiency of transport ambulances can be improved. At present 37% of patients who rely on hospital transport for their outpatient appointments miss their clinic because of the transport running late and almost 50% of patients have to wait more than 2 hours after their appointment for their transport home. In the future, the automated hospital transport vehicle would continually analyse and update its route to pick up and deliver patients as required. This technology is called ‘adaptive routing’, using algorithms to plan and continually refine routes based on need.

Autonomous Police Cars

Ford has been granted a patent to develop autonomous police cars which could ultimately have the capability to chase down speeding drivers and give them a ticket.

The US car company, which produces cars for police forces in the UK and the US, was granted a patent earlier this year to develop cars with the capability to carry out police work independent of human officers.

The designers envision car-to-car technology which would let the patrol vehicle check whether a car was being driven manually or automatically, scan the driver’s licence, and, if need be, issue a ticket remotely.

The goal of the autonomous police car, Ford says, is not to replace human police officers, but to help them with “routine police tasks.”

Autonomous Fire Engines

Whilst autonomous fire engines are some way off, use of remote controlled vehicles are already being used to support the UK fire service in remote locations.

One such example is “Robocut”. Cameron McCrae has brought a one-and-a-half tonne unmanned vehicle which can chop down trees, climb 60 degree slopes and stop a wildfire to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s community asset register.

The register is effectively made up of an army of volunteers who own boats, 4x4s and other assets which can be mobilised.

On his first call out, Cameron found himself in Golspie at the scene of a massive wildfire.

Mr McCrae said: “This machine can go where firefighters can’t, following the direction of the senior officers – and it will help stop or redirect wildfires then and there.

“At Golspie, the scale of the fire was incredible and I used the machine to create a 13ft wide, half-a-mile long firebreaks in the gorse and heather to stop the fire spreading across the mountain.”

A vision of the future?

Albeit farfetched today, this video shows a potential future for fire service vehicles. It went viral on social media with almost a million views, so it certainly grabbed people’s interest! Whilst bordering on science fiction, it does give food for thought

How will Connected and Autonomous Vehicles Impact the Control Room?

As vehicles, roads and communications infrastructure become more connected, the amount of data available to control rooms could be immense. EY estimate that in the future, on digitally connected roads, each autonomous vehicle could create 750MB of data every second. How much of this data would be of use to control rooms and investigation officers and how much should be made available? Locating incidents, dispatching the correct emergency responders and managing busy roads could be significantly improved. Government, Emergency Services and wider industry will need to work together not only to understand the potential benefits and challenges of the use of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles by the public and private sectors, but also to ensure that laws governing their use are clear and in place.

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