The Longevity

Self-Driving Cars Could Close Impending Mobility Gap for Older Adults

April 21, 2017 |

It may turn out to be one of the most fortunate of coincidences that self-driving cars become prevalent just as a large number of baby boomers reach the moment when driving becomes difficult. Coincidence or not, the vehicle manufacturers stand to gain as much as the seniors, says a recent article by the New York Times.

The number of United States residents age 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.

Common transportation services like Uber and Lyft are not in a position to help many older adults get around because of where they live.

[Joseph Coughlin, the director of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology AgeLab in Cambridge,] said that 70 percent of those over age 50 live in the suburbs, a figure he expects to remain steady despite a recent rise in moves to urban centers. [Moreover], although these companies now offer limited app-free services, some older people are wary of riding with strangers and being able to identify the right vehicle.

The data overwhelmingly shows a need for mobility solutions for aging adults.

92 percent of older people want to age in place, said [Coughlin]. [And] a recent study led by Dr. Maria Torroella Carney of Northwell Health in Great Neck, N.Y., found that 22 percent of baby boomers are now or at risk of becoming so-called elder orphans, with limited access to transportation.

Many car companies and tech companies are in the race to develop the vehicle that will claim the early market share.

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, [so] the spectrum of vehicles eventually coming to market will allow older drivers to consider the types that suit them best.

Still, despite all the promise of self-driving cars to close the mobility gap, few experts think this transition will happen quickly.

“It’s a whole mind-set change for the elderly to have something that they can’t control, and even getting their children to buy into it,” said [James Kenyon, Detroit franchise owner of Visiting Angels, an agency that provides nonmedical home care for seniors]. “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?”

Marcus Rothoff, project leader of the Volvo Drive Me program, “which aims to include 100 Swedish drivers over several month,” sees the healthy wariness of seniors as an excellent opportunity.

“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 said. “One important group is senior drivers. Ultimately, the driver interface and interaction needs to be so intuitive that no training is needed.”

And as AARP’s Senior Vice President of Marketing Innovation, Jody Holtzman often says, if you do not have a 50+ strategy, you are leaving money on the table. Mr. Couglin goes one step further in the case of autonomous cars:

“If seniors don’t trust the technology and don’t like giving up control,” he said, “it will slow down this business dramatically.”