Will self-driving or autonomous cars provide a lifeline to older or disabled drivers?

Carlton Boyce / 29 June 2016

We look at future technology and ask if autonomous or self-driving cars could provide a lifeline to older or disabled drivers by keeping them mobile and independent for longer?

That the Ford Motor Company employs a ‘futurist’ might surprise you, but that Sheryl Connelly says that “aging is being redefined thanks to shifts in healthcare, nutrition and medical science” will probably surprise you less – and that companies such as Ford are so concerned with tailoring their products to meet the needs of an aging population is likely to surprise you least of all; there will be two billion people in the world over the age of 60 by 2050, almost twice as many as there are today, making our demographic a very important one. 

While the majority of ‘early adopters’ of technology tend to be relatively young, those seeking and endorsing autonomous, or self-driving, cars tend to be older, appreciating, as they do, the increased mobility that such a technological shift would offer. 

“For the first time in history, older people are going to be the lifestyle leaders of a new technology. Younger people may have had smartphones in their hands first, but it’s the 50-plus consumers who will be first with smart cars” says Joseph Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab.

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Staying independent and mobile

Older drivers in the UK are joining the mind-set of countries such as Japan, who see the advent of autonomous cars not just in terms of increasing road traffic density and safety, but as a vital tool to keep older drivers mobile for longer

This view is supported by a recent survey carried out by Ford in which 41% of adults in Britain agreed that the benefits of such autonomous vehicle technology outweigh the possible risks associated with yielding complete control to a two-tonne machine travelling at 70mph.

Joseph Coughlin of AgeLab is, however, keen to make the point that while younger drivers “tend to trust technology without verifying it, older people want to understand what’s happening.” 

This means you can expect to start to see intensive educational and advertising campaigns in the near future priming you of what’s to come; I suspect we all remember too many technological innovations on programmes such as Tomorrow’s World to trust that every claimed breakthrough will automatically lead to a revolution in our lifestyle.

Yet, the car manufacturers might well be knocking at an open door: Agelab’s studies show that 70% of drivers aged between 50 and 69 would test-drive an autonomous car, with 31% saying they’d buy one if it was the same price as a normal car.  

This is, don’t forget, without anyone having been driven in one yet; imagine what the endorsement levels would look like if you knew that your neighbour, or family member, had been successfully using one for a while…

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So what might an autonomous future look like? 

It’s not inconceivable (in fact, it’s highly likely) that when autonomous cars are legalised – the technology is already in place and viable – one will turn up at your front door in response to a calendar event, having calculated the likely journey time, updated, of course, with reference to the prevailing traffic and weather conditions.

You’ll get into the car, which will then drive you (in silence, thanks to its electric motor) to your destination. You’ll disembark, and it will then drive off to park in the nearest free space, recharging its battery while it waits for you to summon it via your Smartphone when you’ve finished your appointment.

It will then drive you home, calling in at the supermarket as your fridge has told it that you need milk. (While you’re there your calendar will remind you that your grandchildren are coming tomorrow, prompting you – in concert with the supermarket’s marketing department – to stock up on chocolate biscuits…).

It will drop you at your front door before returning to the nearest charging point to await the next call on its services.

And no, you probably won’t own an autonomous car outright; you’ll rent it by the journey in the same way as you might a cab, sharing it with other users, choosing from a variety of vehicles, selecting, perhaps, an estate car for a trip to B&Q, or a convertible when the sun is shining.

Imagine that; perfect mobility and wind-ruffled hair! Sometimes the future looks utterly fantastic, doesn’t it?

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The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.