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New Study Shows Skepticism About Driverless Ambulances

Researchers Find Women React
with Anger to Autonomous Vehicle 

MELBOURNE, FLA. — Drones delivering packages is one thing. But embracing the automated delivery of something far more important – an injured human being – is harder for people to do, according to new research from Florida Institute of Technology and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

In findings announced March 6 at the 2017 International Symposium on Human Factors and Ergonomics in Health Care conference in New Orleans, researchers reported that a majority of adults surveyed were significantly less willing to be transported in a driverless ambulance compared with a conventional one.

The research, based on three studies involving 1,028 U.S. adults, found that half of those surveyed had reservations about being transported in an autonomous ambulance, and that women were generally less willing than men to ride in such a vehicle, even with the promise of receiving care from two paramedics rather than one.

“Our results showed that consumers were fairly positive towards the idea of the traditional ambulance configuration, while they had mixed feelings about the autopilot configuration,” said Stephen Rice, an Embry-Riddle associate professor of human factors.

The findings may also reflect the fact that, in an emergency, 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, “Patient Perceptions on the Use of an Auto-piloted Emergency Medical Transport: An Affective Perspective.

“If you’re having a heart attack and all of a sudden a driverless vehicle shows up, that would be an unexpected event which could cause you additional stress,” he said.

Additionally, women presented with the hypothetical prospect of riding in a driverless ambulance were more likely to react with anger, which further reduced their willingness to utilize the service. The same scenario tended to provoke either fear or happiness in men. The fear made them less willing to accept an autonomous ambulance, while the happiness made them more willing.

“The novelty of the concept likely heightened people’s emotional responses to it because ambulances on autopilot aren’t a part of our everyday lives at this point,” Rice said.

As emergency medical service agencies in many major U.S. cities struggle to meet increased demands for care, and as autopilot technology continues to improve, it is likely that automated emergency response vehicles may one day be a reality, Embry-Riddle’s Rice and Joseph Keebler said in the paper written with Winter and Florida Tech Ph.D. candidate Rian Mehta. Keebler served as the chair of the conference and is the co-author of a forthcoming book, Human Factors and Ergonomics of Prehospital Emergency Care.

The researchers proposed that automated ambulances could improve care because two paramedics could attend to each patient. Now, one paramedic or emergency medical technician cares for the patient while another drives.

“Having additional healthcare providers in the back of an ambulance promotes teamwork and helps to improve patient outcomes,” Keebler said. “An automated ambulance would allow patients to get to the hospital much more quickly and smoothly while receiving care from two providers instead of one. Automation could be especially important in many regions where emergency medical services are insufficiently funded.”

The researchers conducted three studies with online participants who were presented with two hypothetical scenarios. In one, participants were asked to imagine that they had called 911 for help with a medical emergency and an ambulance arrived with a driver in the front and a paramedic in the back. In the second, participants were asked to envision the arrival of an ambulance on autopilot, with two paramedics offering care.

  • An initial study involving 102 men and women revealed that participants were less likely to want to ride in the automated ambulance.
  • In a subsequent study, 134 men and women were assessed to determine their level of emotion or “affect.” A higher level of emotion tended to reduce willingness to accept an automated ambulance.
  • In the third study, 792 participants were presented with the prospect of an automated ambulance ride and then asked to match their emotional state to one of six facial expressions indicating anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness or surprise. Women were more likely to react with anger, which made them less willing to board the pilotless ambulance. Men were more prone to respond with fear, which made them less willing to accept the pilotless ambulance, or with happiness, which made them more willing.

The authors acknowledged limitations of their study, including the use of hypothetical scenarios, which could influence how patients might respond in a real-world situation, and the use of online study participants. Still, the work offers important insights into public perceptions of automation.

And it may be possible, they added, that education and awareness could work to offset the emotional response of consumers.

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