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How self-driving cars will change emergency management

In the second installment of our 3-part blog series on the future of emergency management (read Part 1 here), Bryan Koon, Vice President of IEM and Former Director of Florida Division of Emergency Management, has joined us as a guest blogger to discuss how the field of emergency management is expected to change as technology moves more and more towards the use of self-driving cars. 

As you may have gathered in the recently-published Fourth National Climate Assessment, things are going to start getting uglier.  Storms are going to get more frequent and intense, droughts more prolonged, ocean levels higher, and wildfires deadlier.  Fortunately, there is an upside.  Advances in technology have made surviving cataclysms easier than even a generation ago. 

I believe that one of the most consequential of these emerging technologies will be the continual development and implementation of self-driving cars technology.  As we transition from our current construct of human-driven transportation to one in which the machine takes control, we will see a fundamental shift in the way that humans move out of harm’s way. 

As anyone who has ever been involved in an evacuation of any significant size, the most difficult part of the equation is human nature itself.  Despite well-constructed plans that phase the evacuation into zones designed to reduce congestion, residents in a potentially impacted area either jump the gun and leave early, or resist leaving until the last-possible minute, eliminating any margin of error and putting too many people on the road at the same time.  And once they get on the road, they drive too fast or too slowly, too close to the vehicle in front of them or too far away, don’t have enough gas or take way too much when the supply is low, drive all of the cars in their driveway, and may not have an endpoint in mind when they depart, causing them to drive far too many miles at the worst possible time.  All of these contribute to the scenes you see on the news of traffic jams as far as the eye can see, interviews with frustrated motorists, and far-too-often, deaths and injuries resulting from the evacuation itself.  You may also hear the phrase “I’ll never evacuate again” uttered by those who (apparently) would rather risk death than the inconvenience of being in yet another traffic jam.

Now imagine that same situation in 20 years:

  • Self-driving cars will shuttle passengers to a safe destination at the best possible speed, communicating with all of the cars around it to maximize the volume of the road network.
  • Ride-sharing services will maximize the numbers of occupants per vehicle, reducing the number of cars on the road.
  • An interconnected network of hotels, shelters, friends and families, etc. will eliminate the need for driving to search for a bed to sleep in for the night. An end to traffic-jamming fender benders and fuel outages means no more stop-and-go traffic. 
  • With human drivers out of the pictures, one-way trafficking and contra-flow become feasible once again, simultaneously increasing the outbound capacity of the road network and the delivery of emergency goods and services to the impacted area. 
  • Cars that are not needed to deliver people to safety can instead position themselves to best survive the storm, saving the insurance company millions of dollars in claims. After the storm, emergency managers and law enforcement personnel can designate areas that need to have controlled access for life-safety and security purposes, and instead of using scarce personnel resources to accomplish the feat, charge the vehicles themselves with keeping out of the area unless properly authorized.

All of this is not a slam-dunk. A number of challenges will need to be overcome to reach this end-state:

  • Evacuations over the next twenty years could actually become harder, as the process of switching from gasoline to electricity could mean that neither is available in appropriate volume during a large-scale evacuation of a densely populated area.
  • Changes in Americans’ driving habits means that we could actually not have enough vehicles to accommodate everyone who needs to go (though this can be mitigated by building more resilient safe-havens closer to the population who need it).
  • And self-driving cars may not function at all in emergency situations like the one in the recent Camp Fire, where Californians had to drive through walls of flame to escape the killer fire.

These complications, however, are fairly simple to deal with, especially compared with the complexity of developing self-driving cars technology as a whole.  Engaging the engineers and companies who are working on those technologies will get them to think about integrating solutions to those problems into their new products.  Political leaders need to understand how this change is going to impact their communities, and fund infrastructure that will support this new way of saving lives.  Builders and property owners will have to be aware of the need and monetary advantage of building facilities that will house survivors during the storm.  And individuals and families will need to change their mindset about evacuating in order to maximize their chances for success.  By doing so, we have the opportunity to save more lives in an era of increasingly-severe perils to our existence.

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