Three years ago, Jim Motavalli predicted that seniors, not hipsters, will get self-driving cars first, writing that the early adopters of self-driving cars would be "senior citizens, baby boomers actually. It may seem counterintuitive — young people usually take the first plunge into the new thing — but in this case it makes total sense."
Three years is a lifetime in the world autonomous vehicles (AVs), and now they're being tested around the States. In the Washington Post, Ashley Halsey III writes that seniors and the disabled will benefit greatly:
They are too old to drive safely or cannot see well enough or otherwise have sound reason to fear climbing behind the wheel of a car. For them, a future when vehicles drive themselves promises unprecedented freedom.
Joseph Coughlin of the MIT AgeLab and author of "The Longevity Economy," thinks they will be a big deal too, telling the New York Times: "The aging of the population converging with autonomous vehicles might close the coming mobility gap for an aging society." According to the Post:
The number of elderly who have given up or curtailed their driving to avoid driving in the dark, in bad weather or in heavy traffic is unclear. A 2008 survey by the CDC found that 15 percent of those 65 or older had stopped driving, while an overwhelming number of those who continued to drive were very selective about when they did so.
But almost everyone gives up the keys eventually; in fact, many live an average of 10 years without being able to drive. As noted in the Post, seniors may not be "as quick as younger people are to latch onto new technology and incorporate it into their lives," but that's not true of many aging baby boomers, who have lived through many changes in technology in the last 50 years, ever since the rotary phone was replaced with pushbuttons.
If this is going to work, we need to make it easier
Waymo, the Google AV spinoff, it trying to make it easier for older or disabled people to embrace self-driving vehicles.
Waymo says it has incorporated several design elements intended to help the elderly and people with disabilities. Like most things these days, the first step is a smartphone app intended to be easy to use and accessible to those with disabilities.
The cars also have audible signals for blind people and screens for hearing-impaired passengers. Some of the other designs have really low floors for ease of entry, and some are wheelchair-accessible.
In Japan, seniors are zooming around the countryside in robotic shuttles that aren't universally accessible yet but look like they could be adapted to become that. (You can see them in action in the video below.)
But it all comes back to where you live
The fundamental problem, as Joseph Coughlin points out, is that 70 percent of Americans live in the suburbs and 92 percent of them want to age in place, rather than move to a different kind of community or home where they don't need a car to get a quart of milk. That might require a whole fleet of cars addressing a wide range of needs and abilities.
But will there be a fleet? Many people touting AVs suggest that they will be shared, because it makes no sense to leave one sitting around parked all day, so they will be available to move those who cannot drive. But as I noted in an earlier post, How self-driving cars could change the way boomers live, I'm not convinced that this is going to happen, and wrote:
"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."
I suspect that AVs will be a boon to many aging boomers — or at least those with the money to own one. But I don't think they will be shared, and I don't think they will be cheap. Two years ago I wrote that It won't be pretty when boomers lose their cars. AVs might make it a little less ugly for a special few.