Self-driving may extend the years seniors are on the go.
Single, childless and 68, Steven Gold has begun to think about future mobility and independence. Although in good health, he can foresee a time when he won’t be a confident driver, if he can drive at all. While he hopes to continue to live in his suburban Detroit home, he wonders how he will be able to get to places like his doctor’s office and the supermarket if his driving becomes impaired.
For Gold and other older adults, self-driving cars might be a solution.
The number of U.S. residents ages 70 and older is projected to increase to 53.7 million in 2030, from 30.9 million in 2014, according to the Institute for Highway Safety. Nearly 16 million people 65 and older live in communities where public transportation is poor or nonexistent. That number is expected to grow rapidly as baby boomers remain outside of cities.
“The aging of the population converging with autonomous vehicles might close the coming mobility gap for an aging society,” says Joseph Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology AgeLab in Cambridge.
He says that 70 percent of people older than 50 live in the suburbs, a figure he expects to remain steady despite a recent rise in moves to urban centers. Further, 92 percent of older people want to age in place, he says.
Coughlin says on-demand services like Uber and Lyft were viable alternatives to autonomous cars, but are not available in many areas where older adults live. Although these companies offer limited app-free services, some older people are wary of riding with strangers and being able to identify the right vehicle. Gold says such services were too expensive for regular use.
Doris Alexander, a retired registered nurse who lives in Chicago, recently tried Uber for the first time, enjoyed it, and cannot envision going driverless. “I wouldn’t know how to act,” says Alexander, 77, who typically relies on public transportation. “The concept that I’m in a car, the car is driving, and I have no driver — it’s just something that’s a little too strange for me.”
In many cases, as with Gold, there are no children around to provide transportation. A recent study led by Dr. Maria Torroella Carney of Northwell Health in Great Neck, New York, found that 22 percent of baby boomers are now or at risk of becoming elder orphans, with limited access to transportation.
“If I were still a good driver in a few years, I’d consider a semiautonomous car,” says Gold, who lives in Oak Park, Michigan, and drives a 2015 Honda Fit. “And if I were in a situation where driving was too physically difficult, then I’d consider a fully autonomous car.”
Along with other firms, automakers including Audi, General Motors, Ford Motor, Nissan, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and BMW are all in the race to reduce or eliminate the amount of time a person in a vehicle is actually driving.
There are several levels of autonomy, going in stages from driver assistance to full automation. For example, by 2020 Honda is aiming to bring to market a vehicle with a high level of automated capability in highway situations. By year’s end, Volvo plans to put highly automated XC90 vehicles in the hands of real-world drivers in Sweden as part of its Volvo Drive Me program.
Within the next four years, BMW hopes to have cars on the street with midlevel automation. BMW and other companies are also working on driverless prototypes that have no steering wheel, brake or gas pedal.
Still, a world in which fully automated cars are common remains many years away. “It’s all going to be a slow transition,” says Nicole Carriere, director of public relations for Edmunds.com. “There will be a fundamental shift, but it won’t be overnight.”
James Kenyon is a Detroit franchise owner of Visiting Angels, an agency that provides nonmedical home care for seniors. From what he has observed, older seniors could have a difficult time adjusting to driverless technology.
“It’s a whole mindset change for the elderly to have something that they can’t control, and even getting their children to buy into it,” he says. “Theoretically, it sounds great, but there are so many possible impediments that have to be worked out, like, if there’s a problem, what do they do?”
One fear is ending up at the wrong destination, a worry that should not be paramount, says Oliver Rumpf-Steppat, head of BMW’s U.S. product requirements engineering division.
Although autonomous-car production is still in the test phase, he says vehicles would most likely rely on voice-recognition systems. “You can say, ‘Take me to the eye doctor or grocery store.’ It will come back and ask which one,” he says. “Most of the time, we get it right.”
Marcus Rothoff also hopes to assuage concerns. He is the project leader of the Volvo Drive Me program, which aims to include 100 Swedish drivers over several months. One goal, he says, is to see how older drivers handle the new technology.
“We need people who are a bit skeptical about autonomous driving — otherwise we will not learn how to build trust and understand their views and expectations,” he says. “One important group is senior drivers. Ultimately, the driver interface and interaction needs to be so intuitive that no training is needed.”