Could Autonomous Vehicles Save Lives in Disasters?

Autonomous vehicles could provide life-saving assistance in the event of a large-scale evacuation, if a shared fleet of autonomous vehicles is built with this purpose in mind.

November 15, 2017, 7:00 AM PST

By Michael R. Boswell, William Riggs

Glen Ellen, California

A man surveys the damage at his home in Glen Ellen, California, in October 2017. | RebeccaJaneCall / Shutterstock

Colleagues Michael R. Boswell and William Riggs continue their "Autonomous Future" series of Planetizen features on autonomous vehicles (AVs), focusing on the promise transportation automation holds for natural disasters. 

One of the shocking realizations to emerge from the recent wildfires in California is the failure of existing public safety systems to warn of impending disaster and ensure that residents evacuate safely.

A story about a family trying to evacuate during this fall's "Wine Country" fires in Northern California, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, illustrates the inadequacies of the emergency alert systems. First, the family only found out about the approaching fire when a neighbor pounded on their door. Apparently, the family did not receive or hear a reverse 911 call or a wireless emergency alert. Neither had the local public safety personnel driven by to announce evacuate orders. Second, once on the road, the family chose their usual way out of the area, only to be stopped by a wall of flames. Luckily a fire crew was there to direct them to a less traveled, and less familiar route.

In a future that includes autonomous vehicles (AVs), could some of these failures been avoided? Imagine this scenario: As described in the example in Northern California, a fast-moving and dangerous wildfire breaks out overnight. Local emergency managers identify hundreds of homes located in areas likely to burn. In addition to the standard notification systems, SUV-sized AVs are immediately dispatched to every home; most arrive in under 15 minutes. Upon arrival, if the family has not already been awoken by alerts, neighbors, or the smell of smoke, the AV pulls into the driveway and begins honking the horn and flashing the lights. The alerted family grabs clothes, precious belongings (and the cat of course!), and gets into the AV. The AV examines incident management data about the location of the fire, its movement and trajectory, and plots the best path to safety. If the family desires, the AV takes them to the nearest evacuation center.

What would it take to deploy an innovative and effective strategy for AV-enhanced evacuation? There are several promising options, but all options require that government emergency managers and autonomous vehicle companies to work together.

Here are seven considerations that could enable autonomous vehicles to become a critical component of public safety operations in the even of a disaster.

  1. Level Five Automation - Starting with the assumption that vehicles achieve level five automation [pdf] to operate without a driver and in all conditions. We also assume that there are large, shared AV fleets operating in the region—perhaps by a company like Lyft, Uber, or Enterprise—though many of the benefits of this system could likely be realized with individually-owned AVs.
  2. Satellite Communications - Given that part of the problem with the emergency notification system is the failure of cellular networks, these AVs would need to be satellite communication enabled.
  3. Real-Time Data - The AVs would need to be able to receive real-time incident management and information on road and traffic conditions. Laura Bliss from CityLab has written about the benefits of AVs and connected AVs for optimizing traffic flow and routing.
  4. Up-to-Date Maps - The AVs would need to know evacuation routes and the locations of evacuation centers. They could also have information on what shelters accept pets and whether the shelters were full.
  5. Emergency Notification - The responding AV would need to be able to activate the horn and lights as an alert system. They could include a secondary siren or horn system similar to some car alarms.
  6. All Terrain Vehicles - The responding AV would need to be able to operate on dirt roads, in the mountains, and in low visibility conditions caused by ash and smoke.
  7. Borrowed Vehicles - Given the scale of many evacuations, these AVs would likely need to also serve as a regular part of a company's shared fleet. The California wildfires had evacuation orders for thousands of homes at a time. That many AVs could likely not be set aside just for evacuation purposes, though a portion of any company's fleet could carry the specialized equipment required for emergency responses.

AV companies and emergency management professionals should collaborate to identify the possibilities and limitations of this concept, including any technological and logistical considerations overlooked by the preceding list. It is likely that through such collaboration, other ideas or enhancements will emerge that could help address issues in the evacuation process. For example, all SUV-size vehicles in an AV fleet could include an emergency "go bag" that includes things like a flashlight, energy bars, a first aid kit, a solar phone charger, and more. AVs operating in wildfire prone regions could even be purposefully designed to enhance the likelihood of survival in a burn-over.

The application of this kind of thinking does not end with wildfires. AVs could also be suitably outfitted in hurricane-prone areas . Imagine if this technology had successfully deployed during Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, over 1,400 people were killed—many because they could not access transportation. AV-enhanced evacuation could have deployed throughout the New Orleans region. Dispatch systems could have calculated and optimized timing and order of the evacuation based on risk and optimal evacuation route capacity.

Reliance on an automated evacuation system could exacerbate the disaster if the system failed during a disaster. But right now most households have access to a car, receive timely warnings, and are able to evacuate themselves. Yet our current system still fails. An AV-enhanced evacuation system would still be an improvement.

If AVs are in our future, let's make sure they deliver substantial health and safety benefits, and let's investigate whether they can make us safer from disasters.

Michael R. Boswell, PhD is a Professor of City & Regional Planning at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and is one of the preeminent expert on strategies to reduce greenhouse emissions and and local climate action planning. He is lead author of the book Local Climate Action Planning and most recently advised UN-Habitat on climate planning as a part of COP 21. His Twitter handle is @mboswell.

William (Billy) Riggs, PhD, AICP, LEED AP is an Assistant Professor in the School of Management at University of San Francisco. He is a thought leader in the areas of transportation, real estate, economics and technology, having worked as a practicing planner and published widely in these areas. He is also the principal author of Planetizen's Planning Web Technology Benchmarking Project, the co-creator of the ReStreet app, and author of a forthcoming book on re-envisioning future streets. He can be found on Twitter @billyriggs.

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