The Autonomous Car will be a double blessing for Baby Boomers, the generation that is currently between ages 51 and 69.
Transportation experts know that the autonomous car is well suited to aging Baby Boomers, because it will keep them mobile, and enable them to travel- even when their health or eyesight fail. This is an essential problem, since even today 21 percent of the population over 65 does not drive.
The double blessing is more subtle. As people age, they have basic needs to get outdoors, to exercise, amble safely, and stay on their feet. Older American tourists often comment that they walk extensively when they travel abroad, but have difficulty continuing the habit at home.
MAKING STREETS SAFER..FOR PEDS
Here is where the autonomous car will help- by making the streets safer for all users, not only for drivers, but also for pedestrians and mobility devices, like the street legal scooter. Traffic engineers seem to design streets with the reaction times of an average 40 year old in mind. But, with an aging population, there are new baselines for the autonomous car to accommodate.
For example, an elderly person may require more time to cross a busy street. The elderly person may be tired, slow on their feet or riding a scooter. At a busy intersection they may find the standard 15 or 30 second pedestrian walk cycle to be daunting. So, through no faulty of their own, they are stranded in the intersection when the light turns green. A car operated by a human driver will honk, swerve and hopefully, slide to a stop. The autonomous car will detect a pedestrian (age neutral) in the intersection and not move.
FIRST MILE/LAST MILE
The autonomous car accommodates this. Another need that comes with age is “first mile/last mile” assisted travel. Older pedestrians may have the best intentions to get out, walk about, and keep mobile but first they need to get to a safe place… with sidewalks. Many Boomers, who plan to age-in-place live in modern suburbs that lack sidewalks, walkable paths or trails. They must first travel by car to reach a safe place to exercise. But what if they are not capable or able drivers? The autonomous car will help them cover the “first mile” and bring them to the walking track.
STREET LEGAL VEHICLES AND THE DARK
There is a third transportation baseline. A growing number of users, mostly older, employ street legal electric scooters, electric driven wheelchairs, and in the future “Uni-Cub/Honda” like robots. Operators of these devices, riding on public streets, know how dangerous it is for them to co-mingle with bigger vehicles. In the daytime their mobility vehicles are barely registered by regular drivers, and at night they seem to be invisible. The NHTSA (see link below) reports that 72 percent of pedestrian fatalities take place when it is dark outside. The autonomous car will make mobility safer for riders of scooters and wheelchairs. It will detect them in all lighting conditions, and faster than human-drivers.
In the current configuration of sidewalks and city streets, older pedestrians face many risks. The risks come from driver’s who do not obey speed limits, drivers distracted by phones and dashboards, and simply human error. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that in an estimated 94 percent of crashes, human error is the critical cause. Vehicle related factors are the critical reason in only 2 percent. They report that in 2014 there were 4,844 pedestrian deaths, and 66,000 injured. On average, a pedestrian was killed every 2 hours and injured every 8 minutes in traffic crashes. (Note: across all age groups). Two final numbers: Nineteen percent of the pedestrian fatalities in 2013, and an estimated 10 percent of those injured were people 65 and older.
THE DIFFUSION CURVE.. SAFE, THEN SAFER!
The autonomous car has a diffusion curve of some import. As more of these vehicles substitute for conventional cars, there will be fewer accidents between cars, and reduced pedestrian/biker/scooter collisions. Then, at some “tipping point” when autonomous cars outnumber conventional vehicles, the safety factor will grow exponentially as the rules of the road change. The results could lead to lower speed limits, reduced travel lanes, safer curb cuts, and the like. Streets will be less dangerous and more functional for both cars and people. Hence the double blessing.
This is only good news to an aging Baby Boomer population. Boomers are known as a generation that continually reinvents itself and “rethinking mobility” can be their last and greatest reinvention. There is no reason to expect Boomers tol remain wedded to cars with steering wheels, when an autonomous car promises to extend the longevity of their “vehicle years.” Even more importantly, the autonomous car will extend the longevity of their “non-vehicle years” and help them get out and about as pedestrians.