Women First for Autonomous Cars

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“It’s women first for autonomous cars.”  That is, older women, who may discover the advantages of the autonomous car sooner, and cede their driving skills faster than men.  Men and women from the Boomer cohort are past their peak driving age, but continue to dominate the car market. With the autonomous car on the horizon, older women might “steer” the market shift.

When they lined up for driver’s licenses at age 16, it was boys who led the pack. Today, as the oldest Boomers reach age 70, it is Boomer women who will play a pivotal role. There are deep cultural reasons to anticipate they can be trailblazers.

WOMEN AS TRAILBLAZERS: SHEER NUMBERS

In a previous blog, we noted the match between aging Boomers and future autonomous cars. We suggested that they might be early adopters as autonomous cars can help Boomers maintain their independence and well-being. The autonomous car is also vital, on a more basic level, to keep Boomers connected, particularly if they live in far-flung suburbs not served by public transportation.

Women will be the trailblazers for a number of reasons. The first reason is actuarial: More of the residents who live in the far-flung suburbs will be widows or divorcees, i.e. single women.  Since 1990, the divorce rate for Americans over the age of 50 has doubled.  Large numbers of women have achieved financial independence and autonomy…and choose to live alone. The other reason is that older women live longer. In the U.S. the male to female ratio falls to .72  beyond age 65.  While not all older, single women will choose to “age in place” those who do need a safe, reliable, and trustworthy mode of transportation. That key could be the autonomous vehicle.

 

WOMEN AS TRAILBLAZERS: SAFER, SLOWER

Women are likely to innovate for other reasons too. Most likely, they will have a different “take” on mobility. Researchers have found that older women are more likely to hang up the car keys than men and recognize when they are no longer capable drivers.  In an older study (1993) it was found that 84 percent of men age 75 to 79 were still driving, but only 60 percent of women; after age 85, more than half of the men still drove, compared to 22% of women. Perhaps women are more likely to follow safety advice from their medical advisors or kin. Or, women may have a more tangible fear of injuring a pedestrian or fellow passenger. Whatever the reasons, women drive less “sooner”.

The Baby Boom generation is significantly different than other groups of elders when it comes to cars. They were the first cohort to have “his” and “her” vehicles, propelled by the dual-income family. Boomer women became unwitting chauffeurs for kids and teens, as well as aging parents. Helping with their older parents has sensitized Boomer women to the importance of keeping mobile and having a backup as you age in place.

The majority of Boomers, about 70 percent of men and women, live in suburbs that are not served by public transportation. That leaves a big gap between their geographic location and their future needs. It is said that the average travel for a doctor’s visit is ten miles, and even a trip to the grocery store or hairdresser might be fairly remote. Compelling data comes from a  1993-1995 study by Foley et al, using life-expectancy tables: it was estimated that male drivers aged 70 to 74 would be dependent on alternative sources of transportation for approximately 7 years and female drivers for approximately 10 years.

WOMEN AS TRAILBLAZERS: FUNCTIONAL NEEDS

The promising news, is that Boomer women are not as vested in the symbolic car-culture as men.  Women, for the most part, do not buy muscle cars, big trucks, nor do they favor race vehicles.  A stereotype, but women drivers do clearly enjoy their minivans and large SUVs. There has been a utilitarian purpose underlying these models- driving the kids or the grandparents, plus groceries for the household.

A future utilitarian but functional autonomous car will probably be less of an affront to their driving sensibility. Meanwhile, it will also free them from tire shopping and visiting the auto mechanic, outings that are not ranked favorably by women of any age. But, the most important, and liberating aspect of the autonomous car is that it will get them places, and help them maintain their independence and a car-centric lifestyle, learned and practiced over a lifetime.

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