31st May 2017

How connected autonomous vehicles and Mobility as a Service will help ease the UK’s mental health landscape and potentially boost employment

Pick up a newspaper, browse any number of websites or switch on the TV and it won’t be long before an article relating to mental health will come into view, as the subject is regularly debated here in the UK at the moment.

Poor mental health amongst van drivers

As a telematics, vehicle tracking and motor insurance solutions company with a client base comprised a large number of vehicle fleets, we were particularly interested to see Mercedes-Benz Vans UK publishing research to mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2017 in which they revealed that nearly a fifth of the 2,000 van drivers surveyed feel they have poor or very poor mental health.

The probable contributing factors

Road congestion was identified as the main cause by 17% of drivers, with over half citing demanding workloads and schedules as significant factors in their own worsening mental health. Most van drivers operate in solitude, so we concur with the view of Ben, the automotive support charity, that social isolation is another likely contributor. It’s sad to learn, though, that just a third of the UK van drivers surveyed by Mercedes-Benz Vans have reached out and spoken to a professional or even a friend about their mental health worries, the rest suffering in silence.

Mental health’s impact on HR

Adjusting the mental health viewpoint from micro to macro, looking not just at jobs entirely focussed around driving but at employment as a whole, a study by Firstcare and the CEBR pinpointed stress and anxiety as the second most prevalent reasons behind absenteeism, a challenge which currently costs the UK circa £18 billion annually in lost productivity.

Might unemployment be affected too?

Such statistics again specifically refer to people already in employment, though, and after digesting material such as the ‘Mental Health and Transport Summit Report’ from Anxiety UK and the MHAG in 2016, it’s sadly clear that fear of driving or taking public transport prevents thousands of talented potential employees from deservedly landing roles that would ultimately boost their esteem and wellbeing whilst benefitting employers and the UK’s economy. It’s been well documented that former political high-flier, Alastair Campbell, experienced intense dread of public transport as part of his own battle with poor mental health, anxiety and depression.

Public transport mobility improvements

It’s encouraging to see some excellent steps being made by major public transport players like Stagecoach in helping talented would-be employees overcome mental health’s barrier into the workplace, improvements often revolving around enhanced training resulting in better-attuned passenger assistance from operators’ staff. The ‘Better Journey’ cards introduced by First Bus are a brilliant idea, too, enabling people who suffer from various mental health conditions, impairments and/or social phobias to discretely communicate their challenges to empathetic bus drivers.

Could CAVs and MaaS change things?

Is it conceivable, then, that connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs) and Mobility as a Service (MaaS) solutions could be the future’s real game-changers, helping address certain consequences of poor mental health that are so often overlooked?

Initially prohibitive pricing will admittedly place CAVs out of reach for most private motorists for decades, not to mention legislative, safety and infrastructural hurdles yet to be overcome, but driverless vehicle trials from pioneers such as Oxbotica’s ‘Driven’ consortium will hopefully accelerate progress and eventually liberate housebound sufferers of agoraphobia, autism, BPD, dysphoria, dyspraxia, epilepsy, OCD and other challenges.

Future mobility solutions

While it can’t be disputed that driverless vehicles will have a detrimental impact on the likes of couriers, taxis, chauffeurs, haulage and other professional driving jobs, the autonomous technology being tweaked by Google, Intel, Uber, Volvo and others will have an enormously positive impact on personal mobility for sufferers of poor mental health. Prospective employees previously prevented from applying for roles because of the fear of driving or using public transport will conceivably be able to use Mobility as a Service apps to summon single-occupant driverless pods to transport them to their workplaces. A healthier work-life balance will also be more attainable through the ability to work, read, admire the scenery, practice mindfulness or even sleep on journeys to and from work, rather than getting stressed or anxious in gridlocked congestion.

What about the here and now?

In the meantime, until MaaS solutions further mature and CAVs become commonplace on societies’ roads, it’s important for everyone from public transport operators to employers to become increasingly empathetic regarding mental health, a largely hidden, silent epidemic. While having a routine benefits many people, flexible working could better suit, for example, employees who suffer panic attacks or who may work more productively at home on occasion. With mental health often in the news these days, lasting changes will surely result.