Self-driving Cars: Can They Help Senior Independence?
Anyone who’s made the decision to take the keys away from Mom or convince Grandpa to give up driving knows how agonizing it can be to draw that line in the sand for a loved one. Getting rid of the car may be the most appropriate, safest thing to do for an aging parent or grandparent, but it’s heartbreaking to ask them to give up their independence.
Still, there comes a time when many seniors will have to give up driving. It will make it harder to do just about anything—going to the doctor, getting groceries, even just getting out to see friends. In the future, though, you won’t have to make that decision. That’s because cars will drive themselves. By the time your own reflexes, eyesight and agility start to wane, chances are you’ll be able to stay independent much longer than your parents and grandparents—with a self-driving car.
“The technology certainly has the potential to have a significant, positive impact on mobility and independence for older adults,” said researcher Lisa A. D’Ambrosio, Ph.D., who studies the impact of technology on older Americans at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab. “For people who might physically be struggling with getting around, or who feel like their physical capabilities have declined, autonomous vehicles can make a real difference, keeping them socially, financially and economically integrated in society.”
AARP went as far as to call self-driving cars a ‘godsend’ for the tens of millions of older Americans who live in suburbs or rural areas and who intend to age in place—even if they don’t have access to public transit. A self-driving car may allow them to live their later years on their terms.
While seniors stand to benefit by having a greater level of independence thanks to self-driving cars, the development of the technology is being driven largely by the goal to increase safety for all drivers. Because more than 90 percent of all accidents today area caused by human error, self-driving cars are being designed to greatly reduce (and ultimately eliminate) the need for human intervention. Already, much of the underlying safety-enhancing technology is showing up in new car models available on the market today: back-up cameras, parking assist, lane departure and blind spot warnings, and adaptive cruise control that adjusts its distance to other vehicles around you.
Given the speed at which the technology is developing, D’Ambrosio says the industry is “pretty close” to pulling it all together and making self-driving cars a reality for the masses. “When you look at cars like Tesla that are on the road right now—and not withstanding the recent crashes—those cars really do have the capacity to let the driver cede control to the vehicle for portions of the driving task,” she said. “And so when you ask about a timeline, you’ll find people out there who will confidently say we’ll be there in three years or five years or ten years. Personally, I think it’s hard to say.”
“The fundamental questions are, ‘What is the role of the operator, and what are his or her responsibilities with respect to the vehicle?’” she said. “Does an individual in the vehicle need to know how and be able to assume control of the vehicle if necessary? If the vehicle is involved in a crash, who’s responsible? Is it the driver? Is it the vehicle? Is it the manufacturer of the vehicle? The developer of the software? What’s the role of the insurance company? Those are some of the questions that we haven’t answered.”
For seniors, it may also take some time for them to fully embrace the idea of giving up control of the car. In a 2015 study conducted by the MIT AgeLab and the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence, researchers explored the attitudes of older drivers about self-driving cars and found that almost three-quarters (70 percent) said they would test-drive a self driving car, but less than a third (31 percent) would purchase one, even if it was the same price as a regular car.
While it may take some time for attitudes about autonomous cars (and the rules that will govern them) to catch up to the technology, D’Ambrosio believes the industry will see increasing levels of acceptance and demand, especially as Baby Boomers age.
“They want to maintain their mobility for as long as possible, and autonomous vehicles will have a role to play.”