Elderly drivers and autonomous cars have an oddball linkage. They share some common denominators despite their gaps in years and tech experience. Both the elderly driver and vehicle tech firms wish to avoid accidents at all cost, keep insurance providers out of the mix, and drive more defensively than offensively.
Autonomous cars are being designed for all age groups, not just the elderly, but for a myriad of reasons, they currently behave on the road more like older drivers. There is a certain irony here since the older driver may say they have less trust in this technology than younger groups, yet be one of the first groups to benefit from using them.
Elderly drivers don’t speed for many reasons; they are afraid of being pulled over and, if so, losing their license and insurance, they want to be prepared and able to stop, and they compensate for their slower reaction time. In the same way, the current designers of autonomous cars want to keep rolling- and that means keeping accidents, like the recent Tesla auto-pilot failure, out of the limelight.
Everyone has a favorite story about the old person who barely reaches the steering wheel, gets on the freeway in the middle lane, and then proceeds to be passed on the left and right by speedier vehicles. The older driver is probably going at the posted speed limit, or slightly under it. In an area posted at 65 mph, other drivers might be doing an average of 70 mph leaving the senior in the dust.
The current crop of driverless cars will behave like the older driver- they do not exceed posted speed limits. A self-driving car can be even more exacting- and reduce speed to conform to the posted limits on yellow advisory signs. (Of course, this could change if a rogue programmer decided to ignore traffic laws or tailgate other vehicles).
On a bad day, a (wise) elderly driver will stay at home- rather than venture out in their car- and for now, so will the autonomous car. By bad day, we mean one where weather conditions, like heavy snow or torrential rains, obscure markings on the road bed, and make it difficult to “see”. Automotive engineers are currently working on this problem and reducing the number of “stay-at-home” days– testing has spread from sunny California to snowy, cold Michigan and Sweden. But, like the older person who is afraid of sliding off the road in icy conditions, autonomous cars will also need, at least for the time being, to adjust to and accommodate “weather.” That said, the technology is overtaking the skill set of many older drivers. Autonomous cars are being tested in low-light conditions, and their ability to navigate at dark is improving. For the elderly, and near-elderly, driving safely at night is often a concern.
The third connection between elderly drivers and autonomous cars can be characterized as more of a design factor, less one of engineering. Elderly drivers often favor plain vanilla, sensible, coupes and older model sedans. The sporty “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” is a rare find. Most older drivers do not use their car to make a statement about their lifestyle or income level. They favor functional cars that go from “point A” to “point B”.
The current crop of autonomous cars has the same sensibility. The Google car is said to resemble a jelly bean, and other test models are small and boxy. Function has overtaken form, at least for now. It may portend a sea change: Mobility from “point A” to “point B” will be the goal, and the vehicle that does it will not need to glam with extra trim and chrome. There may be even less glam, more functionality, as individual/household cars evolve to shared ones.
The elderly are likely to be one of the first markets for autonomous cars- along with other people with limited vision, and handicapped adults who have difficulty driving today. They will not be looking for a sports car, but rather, a way to safely and reliably to get around. The autonomous car will be a safe choice- and a reliable one. It will less resemble a “car” as we describe it today, and more a mobility aid and travel companion. The picture at the top of the blog gives a hint of things to come: this is a Korean designed self-driving vehicle prototype; to some, it resembles a crossover- that is a crossover of a scooter and a motorized wheelchair.
Meanwhile, future autonomous cars may be “cars” in name only. A new type of mobility may be on the horizon- one that is less about sport, as in motor-sport- and more about safety, speed limits, and security. For the present, the person sitting in that slow car ahead of you could either be an old timer, or a young techie monitoring the LIDAR array.