Recently I reported on the San Francisco Fire dept. being upset at how a Cruise robotaxi coming the other direction couldn’t clear out of that lane when the fire engine was blocked by a stopped garbage truck. Discussion suggest there was concern over whether cars like the Cruise were ready for driving on a road with emergency vehicles.
While there may be some small issues to resolve, emergency crews should take heart. A future is possible where they will be able to respond to emergencies far better than they can today, thanks to robocars and other future technologies like e-VTOL aircraft.
Robotaxi developers build simulations of situations on the road, including encountering emergency vehicles. They do thousands of variations of those situations to try to make sure their car will do well. When it doesn’t, they fix it. They may not get everything, but they will constantly improve as they learn — and one of the ways they learn is by being out on the road. In spite of protestations, nothing tremendously bad happened here.
But let’s consider what could happen.
Already many emergency vehicles have their locations tracked back at HQ. All that takes is a smartphone in the vehicle, but it also can be built into vehicles. In the future, every emergency trip an be entered, and unless it’s a stealth police raid, published on a server. This is to say that for a fire truck or ambulance, its destination and planned route will be published, with that route updated in real time if changes are made. The robocar companies (and for that matter, the navigation companies like Waze) would subscribe to that feed. If need be, they can assure that any of their cars that might impede the first responders would get out of the way well in advance, taking alternate routes, or getting ready to pause or pull over even before they can hear the siren.
In the more distant future, when almost all cars use navigation software or are robocars, driving a fire truck might be like having the Red Sea part in front of you as the vehicles plan a path for you. Indeed the well-behaved nature of robocars makes them more likely to pull over as needed, to stop at intersections you need to traverse against a red light (if that hasn’t been changed by a remote light control system) and block the other cars. The cars will get better and better at it the more they learn.
The emergency vehicles will possibly be driving themselves at some point. While emergency driving requires special skills, a robot which can see perfectly in all directions might well be able to do it better than even a trained human driver. And it would be updating its route so everybody else can respond. Indeed, at the site of a fire or other emergency, any robocars “parked” on the street near the site will get the signal and be long gone by the time the fire crew arrives.
In the air
That’s if the emergency crew is going on the ground at all. Today, over 300 companies are known to be developing e-VTOL vehicles — electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft or “flying cars.” The vehicles are there and work, but they are not for sale because of many problems they still have to solve, like range, noise, automatic flying, traffic control and capacity.
Noise and range are not issues for most emergency vehicles. They can have human pilots until the automatic flying is flawless, or have trained humans assist the flight without having to be full pilots. A vehicle that only needs to go 5 miles can have a lot more capacity, too. Nobody cares if an ambulance or fire truck is a bit noisy.
It seems likely that before very long, almost every ambulance will be a flying one. It’s hard to argue with. It will get to you in hundreds of seconds, not 10 minutes. It will get you to the hospital in a similar time. In fact, it will get to you so fast that it could have an emergency doctor in it rather than just an EMT — today their time is too valuable to ride around in ambulances. Capacity is not an issue because you can send more than one ambulance for cases that need it. For example, to pick up a 500lb patient, one vehicle could come for the patient, another could bring beefy EMTs to move the patient into the ambulance, with a lightweight EMT to accompany the patient if needed on the 2 minute flight.
The ambulances will need to be flying cars, which can roll a short distance after they land, but not travel a long way.
With fire crews, again you can dispatch several vehicles. One with pumps and hose, others with crew. They can get there early while a larger road-based vehicle takes its time. Ladders will not be needed, as the flying vehicles could often evacuate people from high floors and the roof. One can imagine a lot of different options in rescue vehicles. It’s likely there will also be a drone that lifts up the hose and nozzle into the air (powered by wires in the firehose so the drone doesn’t need batteries) to target water on any part of a building. A chain of drones with intermediate pumps could even lift a hose up to the top of a skyscraper.
Police of course, could get anywhere in the city in moments. And all of this will happen without disrupting traffic on the ground at all.
As such, it would be foolish for current emergency departments to risk slowing down the deployment of these technologies, which will greatly improve their ability to do their job in the not too distant future.