New study in the ANZ Journal of Public Health is worried we’re all going to get fat using autonomous vehicles to order junk food 24/7

    A new study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, interviewed 40 experts across the technology, transport, government and health sectors to identify common themes, concerns and trends.

    Research leader, Prof Simone Pettigrew, Head of Food Policy from the George Institute for Global Health, says that automated and driverless vehicles are expected to be the dominant form of road transport by 2050. 

    Experts agreed that driverless vehicles will inevitably be used as an extension of current on-demand food and grocery delivery services – it’s a matter of when, not if, this happens. We are already seeing trials of the technology in Australia. 

    Prof Simone Pettigrew, Head of Food Policy from the George Institute for Global Health

    It’s convenient, but the concern is the impact this will have on population health. Food delivery is widely associated with unhealthy food and we believe food delivery apps are already feeding obesity rates through junk food availability and reductions in incidental exercise.

    The experts we spoke to agreed new automated food delivery systems could exacerbate these trends.

    Imagine the implications if a robot is in your street advertising and selling soft drink, or a drone can bring fries to your backdoor without you even stepping into the street. Convenience could come at the cost of health,

    Prof Simone Pettigrew, Head of Food Policy from the George Institute for Global Health

    The findings have prompted the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) to urge Governments and policymakers to ensure they proactively anticipate future trends in food delivery to help prevent negative health outcomes.  

    Much of these delivery systems can go straight to kids, bypassing parental controls.  This is another example of technology being well ahead of our regulatory systems. As we continue to face an obesity crisis that has disappeared from the headlines, we are simply unprepared to protect the community.

    We shouldn’t wait for this to become a problem – we need pre-emptive policy now or we will be left trying to retro-fit regulation to something that already exists.

    PHAA CEO, Adjunct Prof Terry Slevin

    While acknowledging the issue is complex and requires a sophisticated response, the study does include some of the policy measures experts think Governments could consider, including: 

    • Outright bans – for instance banning delivery bots on footpaths to keep other users safe
    • Advertising restrictions on the surface of vehicles 
    • Location restrictions – for instance banning the use of these sorts of technologies offering junk food near schools
    • Higher licence fees for activities that do more harm – for instance automated vehicles promoting junk food

    My take

    There’s no doubt that some will leverage autonomous vehicles for convenience features like food delivery, but personally, I’m a little more optimistic than the participants in this study. Every day, there are people that take a taxis or Ubers to get McDonalds. Every day, there are people who are ordering unhealthy food from food delivery services, so the only change here would be an economic one. The big opportunity with Autonomous vehicles is to remove the cost of the driver from the equation and when that comes to home deliveries, that could mean a lower cost for each delivery, meaning more people are likely to leverage that service.

    Autonomous Vehicles are expected to deliver a lower cost of transport and in many cases change the way people think about car ownership. In locations where autonomous vehicles are prolific, you would be able to use an uber-style mobile app and have a car arrive to you. This makes transport available to more and should reduce our expenditure to move around.

    What’s missing from the research above is a connection between AV and the last mile problem. While an AV could deliver food to your address, maybe even pull into your driveway, but someone or something needs to take that food to your door. This can’t be a human, or they may as well have driven, so that means a robot could be the final piece of the puzzle, something that is likely to arrive many years after autonomous vehicles.

    At the end of the day, some people will misuse any system or solution, but I don’t believe that those who are health conscious are going to start eating junk food because autonomous vehicles exist in the world, we’re all responsible for what goes in our bodies.

    I also think none of the recommendations above are necessary.

    Jason Cartwright
    Jason Cartwright
    Creator of techAU, Jason has spent the dozen+ years covering technology in Australia and around the world. Bringing a background in multimedia and passion for technology to the job, Cartwright delivers detailed product reviews, event coverage and industry news on a daily basis. Disclaimer: Tesla Shareholder from 20/01/2021

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