We know it won't be pretty when boomers lose their cars, particularly in low-density suburbs where it's too far to walk and where public transit is inefficient. Jane Gould, in her book, "Aging in Suburbia: The Must-Have Conversation About Homes and Driving," has great hopes that the self-driving car (which she calls an SAV, or Shared Autonomous Vehicle) might be the answer to our prayers.
If Boomers have a single opportunity to change the world in their retirement, it is in quickly adapting to this new mobility. The SAV may be able to transverse the vast, spread distances of the suburbs in a way that has never been economical or practical for public transportation.
Jane wrote that book in 2014, and things are moving fast in the autonomous vehicle (AV) world. And while I personally believe that they are being overhyped and might well be disastrous for our cities, I suspect that AVs are going to be very good for the suburbs and for aging boomers in particular. The New York Times recently picked up this story, quoting Joseph Coughlin of MIT Agelab: “The aging of the population converging with autonomous vehicles might close the coming mobility gap for an aging society.”
But others think that having a self-driving car carrying us from house to shop or doctor is just a minor change from what we have now. Writing in Co.Design, Devin Liddell thinks it might change the way we actually think about vehicles. Many boomers now live much of the year in recreational vehicles or RVs. So what happens when boomers want to downsize and want to stay mobile?
In the future, the emergence of autonomous RV-like vehicles with architectural elements designed to blur the lines between vehicles and buildings could let older citizens stay in their homes indefinitely. Visits to the grandkids won’t mean a grandparent co-opting a bedroom; instead, their micro-apartment will travel with them (besides, they prefer their own space anyway). For “snowbird” and “sunbird” retirees who split time between locales, often thousands of miles apart, seasonal migrations will be easier than ever, too. A single structure will simply drive itself down the interstate (or connect at a Hyperloop station) for a high-speed commute someplace warmer or cooler. The future of aging isn’t just about using autonomous vehicles to prolong the independence of older citizens living in their homes, it’s about blending autonomous mobility with the home itself.
This is getting really interesting. It's a tiny house on wheels that drives itself. There would have to be a vast increase of the infrastructure of RV parks and pump-outs and charging stations, but imagine the freedom and mobility it would provide.
Instead of building a granny flat in the backyard and having to drive granny to the doctor, she lives in it and it drives itself (and her) to the doctor. In fact, Liddell suggest that it might actually become the doctor. It might have sensors that “could continuously — and unobtrusively — monitor the real-time health metrics of an older citizen, and even proactively suggest adjustments in diet, sleep, exercise, and other behaviors to enhance overall mental and physical well-being.” When it detects a problem, it just drives itself and the occupant to the hospital or appropriate clinic.
Liddell is not the first to think of this; New Deal Design has conceived of self-driving Leechbots and Zoom Rooms, gathering in DetourCities. I noted in TreeHugger in a post titled In the future, we all might live in our cars out of choice that " the whole idea of the city or suburb might break down as we get closer to actually living in our cars. It becomes our home address, with little LEECHbots delivering to you wherever you are."
"One other possibility, if I wanted to go more, sci-fi, is that along the highways you’ll have moving, crawling communities," says [New Deal Design's Gadi] Amit. "Because a few of these zoom rooms could pick up a lane, slowly move, and you’d have a crawling party happening.”
Many have suggested that self-driving cars will be shared, because it makes no sense to own one and park it 95 percent of the time when you could use it as a service. By the same logic, nobody would build a media room at home when they could share a movie theater, even though that home media room is empty 95 percent of the time. I suspect that AVs will be owned, and they will be expensive mobile real estate, rolling living rooms, because that's where people spend most of their time.
And I think Liddell might well be right, they might actually be where people live. Soon the nation might be filled with rolling homes full of boomers autonomously moving from buffet restaurant to doctors office to charging station to Arizona in the winter. I love this idea, going to bed in Buffalo and telling my home to take me to Chicago for a ballgame.
And if you think the highways are congested now, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
For more on this topic, I've written about AVs on TreeHugger recently:
- Eric Reguly on how self-driving cars will kill cities, not save them
- There are three revolutions in urban transportation coming down the road