By Frederick H. Lowe
SAN FRANCISCO–Joanne Marshall, who recently celebrated her 74th birthday, owns a car but she doesn’t drive it at night because she can’t see well when it’s dark.
“I ran over a curb because I didn’t see it,” she explained. It was minor incident and no damage was done, but Marshall worries she might become involved in a much more significant and dangerous accident because of her failing eyesight.
When Marshall (not her real name) heard about driverless cars, she could see more of her independence returning.
“They’re a godsend,” she exclaimed. “We should be able to use cars like planes or trains 24/7, but when you get older it doesn’t work that way,” Marshall said.
These are the kind of comments supporters of self-driving cars hope to hear from everyone, especially older people. Senior-citizens are a target market for the vehicles because their numbers are growing and their physical limitations are increasing, making self-driving cars a good match for them.
Last month, the World Gerontology & Geriatrics Conference met in San Francisco and sponsored a panel discussion about driverless cars, titled “Autonomous Vehicles: The Next Stage of Independence.”
Steve Ewell, the panel’s moderator and executive director of the Consumer Technology Association Foundation, which was founded to link senior citizens with technologies to enhance their lives, said autonomous cars will be very valuable to the nation’s older population.
Panelists believe the vehicles will appeal to senior citizens with poorer eyesight, slower reaction times, joint pain, hearing impairment and other health conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or dementia. The cars could assist the elderly in getting to medical appointments, shopping for groceries and visiting relatives and friends..
The senior citizens market is big and getting bigger
The U.S. Administration on Aging reported in 2014 there were 46.2 million men and women 65 years old and older, and they represented 14.5% of the U.S. population, about one in every seven Americans. By 2030, 70 million Americans will be over the age of 65, and 85 to 90 percent of them will be licensed to drive.
Accidents are a major concern of senior drivers. In 2014, nearly 5,709 senior drivers were killed and 221,000 were injured in traffic accidents.
But driverless cars are also predicted to make the roads safer by eliminating reckless driving, speeding and drunk driving.
Panelist Jessica Nigro, manager of Outreach and Innovation Policy for Daimler North America, said there are five levels of automation implementation that must be met before fully self-driving cars will be on the road.
SAE International, which is based in Warrenville, Pennsylvania, has summarized the table, which begins with driver assisted self-driving cars to fully automated driverless cars. Self-driving cars which are being tested are not fully automated. A person rides in the car and can take control of the vehicle at will.
Daimler AG, which is based in Stuttgart, Germany, owns Mercedes Benz cars and Freightliner trucks. Daimler is now road testing self-driving models of the vehicles they manufacture. More than 263 companies are working to build self-driving vehicles, according to Wired magazine.
With the advent of driverless cars, some experts predict these vehicles will change the way we use cars, not only because they are self-driving but also because riding in a driverless car will allow riders to use the vehicles as mobile offices. Passengers can talk on the phone, write notes, hold meetings or just relax and take in the view.
Self-driving vehicles could affect other forms of transportation.
A University of Washington study about self-driving cars asked the question “Will people skip planes and trains for self-driving cars.”
“Car owners might choose to travel by train to relatively distant business meetings because the train allows them to work and relax. The need to drive is part of the cost of choosing the car, just as standing on a cold platform is part of the cost of riding the train. If you can relax in your car as it safely drives itself to a meeting in another city, that changes the whole equation,” said Zia Wadud, an associate professor at the University of Leeds, and the study’s co-author.
Marshall believes when self-driving cars become available they will improve her life because she no longer will have to wait for the train or travel according to any schedule other than her own.
Frederick H. Lowe wrote this story for NorthStar News Today.com with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Commonwealth Fund.