Seatbelts Optional

Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer


Audrey Fraizer

Would you want to be a patient riding in a driverless ambulance?

Would you want to an emergency dispatcher for a service that uses a driverless ambulance?

EMS has come a long way in the past 50+ years, but are we ready to hitch our transport system to an automated ambulance even if it meant double the paramedic care in the back of the ambulance (since neither would be needed for the driving)?

It’s something to think about, particularly since the driverless concept is getting lots of attention in all types of road transportation, including EMS.

If the idea seems a little unsettling, however, you’re not alone.

Researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Florida Institute of Technology found consumers had mixed feelings about the prospect of riding in an automated ambulance. The norm of traditional ambulance configuration—driver in the front and paramedic in the back—was considered the better prospect during an emergency.1

Predictability tends to be important to people, said Scott Winter, an assistant professor of aviation science at Florida Tech who served as primary author of the team’s paper.2 A driverless ambulance could cause more strain on an already physically and emotionally compromised patient.

Two paramedics available to treat the patient en route might hold to the belief that more is always better, particularly with more hands on deck to perform critical interventions. Not everyone agrees. A study involving dual vs. single paramedic ambulances in Santa Cruz County by EMS Medical Director David Ghilarducci, M.D., cites a possibility of reduced survival rates with more hands on deck.3

In many respects, however, a driverless ambulance is inevitable. EMS ambulance providers look for innovative ways to streamline practices to reduce costs, particularly in light of decreased public and private reimbursement.4 Driverless ambulances could help cut expenses and keep ambulance services in business.

Secondly, autonomous systems are a solid part of EMS development. Autonomous system processes support, replicate, and, in some cases, replace human decision-making, and when ambulances are viewed in this context, EMS is already heading in a driverless direction (e.g., navigational aids, destination voice and data transmission systems). EMS has the technology (or, at least, EMS is certainly capable of getting the connectivity necessary), but it’s a change that must happen gradually. It’s a matter of changing the way we think about it and securely adapting to new paradigms.

A driverless ambulance isn’t the only solution for cost savings in EMS.

For example, drones already deliver AEDs to remote locations. Their use could be expanded to the delivery of medical equipment to remote locations, with patient care instructions available through the emergency dispatch center.

The Emergency Communication Nurse System (ECNS) could be central to such an operation, with the Emergency Communication Nurse (ECN) at the communication center coordinating both the care and necessary medical supplies. If an ambulance is necessary for patient care and transport, drones could drop medical equipment at a specified zone prior to an ambulance’s arrival for immediate treatment.

I like the ECN and drone scenario, and it’s not because I work here. A professional driver at the communication center is the perfect hitch for my health care.


1 “Patient Perceptions on the Use of an Auto-piloted Emergency Medical Transport.” Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University/Florida Institute of Technology. 2017; March 6. https://newsroom.fit.edu/2017/03/07/autonomous-ambulances/ (accessed Feb. 23, 2018).

2 “New Study Shows Skepticism About Driverless Ambulances.” Florida Institute of Technology. 2017; March 7. https://newsroom.fit.edu/2017/03/07/autonomous-ambulances/ (accessed Feb. 23, 2018).

3 Ghilarducci D. “Dual Paramedic vs. Single Paramedic Ambulances in Santa Cruz County.” Santa Cruz Health. 2017; Feb. 20. http://www.santacruzhealth.org/Portals/7/Pdfs/EMS/2017%20Paramedic%20Staffing%20FInal.pdf (accessed Feb. 23, 2018).

4 National Academy of Science. “Emergency Medical Services at the Crossroads.” Committee on the Future of Emergency Care in the United States Health System. 2007. https://www.nap.edu/read/11629/chapter/1 (accessed Feb. 27, 2018).