Foresight series: handing over control - autonomous and unmanned technology

Autonomous vehicles (AV), also known as self-driving, driverless or unmanned vehicles including aerial systems such as drones, can be equipped with an array of powerful technology (e.g. RADAR, lasers, cameras, global positioning system (GPS) computers, AI and 3D maps). This enables AV to sense, monitor and navigate their environment. They can be remotely controlled or operate without human supervision or input.

Many modern vehicles are already equipped with assistive-driving features, such as cruise control, assisted parking etc. The transition to full autonomy is likely to be introduced in phases. Vehicles will become smarter and increasingly automated, requiring less human input.

Semi-autonomous cars and lorries are already undergoing trials in some cities in the UK, however some experts anticipate the transition to full AV on public roads could take up to ten years. Challenges such as vehicle regulation, infrastructure adaptation, public acceptance and legal liability will need to be addressed before AV are considered to be a viable option for the UK’s roads.

Fully AV have already been deployed in some industries such as the mining and marine industry.  Driverless technology has also been implemented in some agricultural vehicles, such as tractors.  AV could benefit industries that are struggling to find enough skilled workers and be used as mobile accommodation, offices and meeting rooms.

  • AV could make jobs in some industries such as agriculture, mining and construction much less human labour intensive by taking over highly repetitive tasks and those that expose workers to noise, inhaled air pollutants, diesel engine exhaust emissions (DEEE), carcinogens, vibration and risk of MSDs.  AV could undertake many agricultural activities such as monitoring, planting, spraying and harvesting crops.  AV such as bulldozers and excavators could make construction faster, cheaper and safer. Underwater AVs could take over some human diving tasks that pose very significant health risks.  
  • Drones could replace human workers in warehouses, reducing the risk of injury such as falls from height and risk of MSDs from repetitive tasks.
  • Drones will enable access to areas that were previously dangerous or difficult to access. This may offer opportunities to reduce health risks associated with working in areas where there is the potential for exposure to hazardous chemicals and dusts, as well as safety risks such as falls from height or working in confined spaces. Drones could enable surveillance in hard-to-reach or hostile environments.  
  • AV could streamline the delivery of freight (platooning) and reduce the requirement for workers to drive long distances. This could reduce the risk of MSDs, fatigue and work-related stress.  Drones could deliver parcels directly to customers reducing the requirements for manual handling tasks while loading and unloading goods, which could reduce the risk of injury.
  • Some job roles could change and become mainly supervisory. This could result in work becoming mundane and less challenging, which could result in reduced job  satisfaction and an increase in work- related stress.
  • Use of AV may expose individuals and organisations to an increased risk of cyber-attack. Corrupted software could cause vehicles to behave in unexpected ways and introduce new risks, particularly in high hazard operations.

HSE’s Foresight Centre chose the topics on the visible and emerging issues we observe through our routine horizon scanning activities. If you are interested in looking into the future of work and using collaborative futures techniques, such as workshops and scenario building, you can contact HSE’s Foresight Centre by emailing