Commentary: In the future, your ambulance could be driverless

Commentary: In the future, your ambulance could be driverless

Drones and driverless cars could ease the strain on health emergency services, helping paramedics prioritise and treat urgent cases faster.

SCDF ambulance
An SCDF emergency ambulance. (File Photo: TODAY)

LONDON: The revolution in driverless vehicles will make many jobs obsolete. In the US alone, it is estimated that driverless vehicles will wipe out 4.1 million jobs. Truck drivers, delivery drivers, taxi drivers and Uber drivers will be out of work, and sooner than you might think.

But automation can be a force for good, doing jobs more cheaply, safely and efficiently. In fact, there’s one service that is crying out for more automation: The ambulance service.

Demand for ambulance services is growing rapidly in developed countries due to a combination of a growing and ageing population, an increasing number of chronic diseases, and a scarcity of primary care clinics and providers. This leaves the emergency services overburdened, with a dismal outlook for the future.

scdf emergency exercise
SCDF paramedics evacuating a casulty, during a simulated exercise.

With driverless vehicles already on the road, some governments are looking into the possibility of driverless ambulances.

Driverless ambulances and other technology could take some of the strain off emergency services, freeing paramedics to deal with high-risk patients where each minute waiting for treatment significantly reduces a patient’s chance of surviving. This would include cardiac arrest patients, where brain damage typically starts within four to six minutes.

For a start, health services can consider introducing a fleet of driverless ambulances alongside their current manned models to deal with low-risk patients – essentially starting out as “medical taxis”. Low-risk patients would be picked up by a driverless ambulance and transported to the nearest hospital or clinic for treatment.

With the introduction of these ambulances, the need for paramedics to respond to every call – regardless of severity – would be greatly reduced.

However, not everyone is in favour of automated ambulances. One survey of just over 1,000 people in the US found that around half said they would be comfortable riding in one.


Drones could also be used by health services to take the pressure off the ambulance service. They would be especially useful for delivering medical equipment to remote locations.

In fact, a start-up called Zipline is already successfully delivering blood and medicine across Rwanda. But these services could also be used in developed countries. For example, if a doctor in a remote rural location has to treat a patient with a rare condition, but she lacks the necessary medical supplies at her general practitioner’s clinic or local hospital, a drone could deliver the supplies.

A drone demonstrates delivery capabilities from the top of a UPS truck during testing in Lithia, Fl
A drone demonstrates delivery capabilities from the top of a UPS truck during testing in Florida. (Photo: REUTERS/Scott Audette)

Alternatively, drones could be used to deliver vital medical equipment to a drop point prior to the manned ambulance’s arrival. This would allow the patient to be treated as soon as the paramedics arrive.

Drones could also be used to transport specialised equipment, medication or even blood products between hospitals. This would reduce the need for ambulances to drive further distances to find somewhere that can treat their patient.


For several years, police forces around the world have been using sophisticated algorithms to predict areas where crime is most likely to occur. This allows police departments to deploy officers to areas of “high demand”. While these Minority Report-style systems have proven to be controversial, a similar system that predicts illness hotspots is less likely to raise eyebrows.

A similar system could be used by ambulance services. It would collect previous trip data from both manned and unmanned ambulances.

The software would take into consideration the time of year, public events (such as concerts), population demographics (such as where elderly or the more vulnerable are located) and past emergencies that ambulances have responded to. This would enable driverless ambulances to locate themselves within high-risk areas when they are not in use, allowing them to respond much faster to calls.

scdf emergency exercise
Calls made to the Singapore Civil Defence Force’s 995 emergency hotline will be assessed based on their severity and be allocated resources accordingly, under a new frontline response framework announced in May.

As these systems log more and more information, they will become increasingly more accurate at predicting medical emergencies, in the same way that data mining tools, used by social media and advertising companies, get better at figuring out what food, clothes, movies and so on you like best, and what you might like in the future.

These new methods may seem far off, but depending on how fast healthcare systems invest and adopt these technologies, they could be changing the way we receive medical treatment within decades.

In the face of ever rising demand, technology is likely to be the saviour of ambulance services, making it faster, more effective and safer. However, it may take a while before the public is comfortable with the idea.

Keegan Shepard’s research at Edge Hill University focuses on patient safety in ambulance services. This commentary originally appeared in The Conversation. Read the original commentary here.

Source: CNA/sl