A future of autonomous vehicles delivering junk food 24/7 is coming, health researchers warn

A hand holding an icecream cone with pink and white scoops of icecream. Yellow background.


While the public health community welcomed the Healthy Kids Advertising Bill 2023 announced by Independent MP Sophie Scamps this week, some public health experts are also warning that new challenges in junk food accessibility and advertising are emerging.

A new study, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health last week warned that the ice cream truck of the future could be driverless and operate 24/7 spruiking junk food, while delivery bots could clog up footpaths, unless Governments step in.

The research involved interviews with 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,” Prof Pettigrew says.

“We are already seeing trials of the technology in Australia.

“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,” says Prof Pettigrew.

The study was published before Independent MP Sophie Scamps introduced her private member’s bill to protect kids from junk food advertising with new restrictions on broadcast and online. PHAA CEO Adjunct Professor Terry Slevin says while Government action on junk food advertising to kids is desperately needed now – this latest ANZJPH research also demonstrates the need for policy makers to also proactively gaze into the future.

“Much of these emerging autonomous 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,” PHAA CEO, Adjunct Prof Terry Slevin, says.

“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.”

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

The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health is the official publication of the Public Health Association of Australia. PHAA’s communications team promoted the research, collaborating with Prof Pettigrew and her media team to raise awareness of this emerging issue. Media coverage included lengthy live interviews with Prof Pettigrew on ABC Radio Canberra Afternoons (listen from 1:11), ABC Perth and Melbourne Evenings (listen from 2:08) and 2ST (NSW South Coast/Southern Highlands) as well as coverage on Cosmos Magazine online and TechAU.

You can read “The inexorable rise of automated food deliveries and potential anticipatory policy actions” in ANZJPH here.

Follow @ANZJPH on Twitter for the latest journal news.



Image: Ian Dooley/Unsplash

1 Comment

Leave a Reply