Self-Driving Vehicles for Seniors

Are you excited or scared about self-driving vehicles? There are many questions about how autonomous driving is going to reshape life, society and transportation for seniors. Green light!
Cockpit of an autonomous vehicle

With more and more people living longer, staying mobile and independent is increasingly important for quality of life while aging. One solution: self-driving vehicles.

What is a Self-Driving Vehicle?

Simply, the label refers to cars that drive themselves. This type of vehicle used to be in the realm of science fiction. But today, and as some experts predict, these vehicles could become commonplace.

A self-driving car does not require input from a human being to navigate to its destination. Read that again. It is somewhat mind-blowing. The car uses cameras, sensors and advanced software. The manufacturers assert that it is able to interpret and respond to the world around it, adjusting for pedestrians, traffic, and other challenges.

The Benefits of Self-Driving Vehicles

The biggest benefit is the promise of fewer accidents. Human error is the source of approximately 90% of accidents. This may be from distraction, testing-while-driving, impaired driving, slow reflexes, or poor decision-making.

With a self-driving car, the benefits could translate into fewer accidents.

Additional benefits include:

  • Mobility for the elderly, who may not be comfortable driving.
  • Mobility for the disabled, who may not be physically able to drive.
  • Group transportation is readily available for seniors.
  • Driving in tough conditions is easier helping seniors manage when conditions involve poor visibility, unfamiliar routes, or traffic challenges.
  • Free time during commuting, as driving would not require full-time attention.

The Downsides of Self-Driving Vehicles

While some manufacturers and experts are focusing on advantages, other people are noting potential threats. What could go wrong with this invention? Depending on whom you ask, you will get a wide range of answers.

Here are a few of the top concerns:

  • Technology could be hacked and controlled by an outside party.
  • Vehicles could be a magnet for subversive attacks such as terrorism.
  • Privacy issues could impact peoples’ freedom of movement.
  • Information on driving habits, personal driving routes, and inter-vehicle communication may be accessible for car manufacturers and other drivers.
  • Legal issues such as liability for collisions are not defined.
  • Licensing for a self-driving is unclear and undefined.
  • Workers who rely on driving for a living will be impacted. This could affect Uber drivers, Taxi drivers, Bus drivers, delivery drivers, and truck drivers.
Older asian man smiles in a self-driving vehicle

Spurred On By COVID-19

With the recent pandemic, some advocates are highlighting the benefits of a self-driving vehicle. Obviously, a self-driving vehicle could help with people move around without posing a threat from another human being. Self-driving vehicles are useful for contactless delivery, such as delivering food from food banks to seniors in need.

The attractiveness of this may boost funding, design, and speed development of self-driving vehicles.

How Soon Will They Be Mainstream?

Current testing shows a lot of promise, yet many experts believe it will be decades before these vehicles are available for mass purchase. Not everyone agrees. Elon Musk, owner of Tesla, asserts that self-driving vehicles will be available to the public in the very near future. Are robotaxis in the near future? Let’s look on the streets to find out.

In the meanwhile… There is some middle ground.

More and more designers are looking for ways to increase self-driving features in human-driven vehicles. This translates into a hybrid mix of features. Some of these may include self-driving features for tough points in driving such as: navigating stoplights, intersections, and getting through city traffic.

You can envision this as levels of assistance or automation.

  • Level One: Some driver assistance for either steering or braking.
  • Level Two: Car assistance for steering and braking at the same time. Attention is required on the road at all times.
  • Level Three: Conditional automation. The car handles most situations and attention can be diverted temporarily.
  • Level Four: High automation. The car takes full control. The passenger can focus on other tasks—there may be requirement to jump in on occasion.
  • Level Five: The car drives you. There isn’t even a steering wheel.

As you can imagine, there is a big difference between level one and level five. Experts note that while the future is coming…it may be several decades before it arrives as a fully self-driven vehicle.

Some experts are looking to self-driving vehicles to proactively address larger issues.

Researchers at Newcastle University are exploring how improvements can be made to better support older drivers when self-driving cars hit the road. In testing older drivers opinions of design, they found that older drivers were generally positive towards some degree of automation. Most of the drivers surveyed preferred retaining some level of control, and also wanted regular navigational updates.

Newcastle’s University Professor Phil Blythe, who led the study said, “I believe it is critical that we understand how new technology can support the mobility of older people, and more importantly, that new transport systems are designed to be age friendly and accessible.”

This study showed that older people were not slower at taking control of semi-autonomous vehicles. Blythe is the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor for the Department of Transportation. Newcastle University is looking for ways to ensure that future mobility systems enable people to travel into their 80s and 90s.

With this vision, one can imagine how self-driving vehicles can become part of a larger social-wide improvement in the quality of life. One can envision self-driving cars to minimize isolation, invite participation, and encourage cross-generational activities.

Portrait of a self-driving car in the future with no driver and passengers facing each other

What’s Your Take?

How do you feel about self-driving vehicles? Do you find yourself in a ‘can’t wait!’ state of mind? Or are you feeling nervous, scared, and unsure?

As design, technology, and options appear, it’s possible that the unimaginable becomes the normal. Just think about all the many changes, innovations, and inventions you’ve seen occur in your life. I bet there are quite a few.

While new ideas may be challenging, odd, or unusual, at first…we tend to grow accustomed to them over time. After a few days, weeks, or months—we often can’t imagine living without the things that seemed so bizarre to start.

Assistance Club Summary

The Big Idea: Self-driving vehicles are likely to be part of travel in the future. While it may be decades until fully automated cars are the norm, some aspects of automation are becoming commonplace.

As new designs emerge, this trend is likely to evolve. Our picture of cars, transportation, and society may well need to evolve at the same time.