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Autonomous Vehicles will improve mobility options for older americans and people with disabilities

Oct 13, 2017

Imagine you are the adult child of a senior citizen parent, and your mom or dad is mentally sharp and active but his or her reflexes and eyesight are not what they used to be just a few years ago. The ability to go to the grocery store, visit family and friends or make a trip to the doctor’s office is important to them and their self-esteem.

If you ask them, they will say they still like to drive, and under some conditions, they do okay. However, you worry about them every time they pull the car out of their driveway, and those feelings of concern are not unlike the ones you have for your teenage children as they take to the road as inexperienced drivers.

This is a dilemma many families are facing: potentially having their parents surrender the car keys, and with it, their mobility and independence. For families it can be a gut-wrenching decision.

Jody Holtzman, the Senior Vice President of Market Innovation at AARP, told digitaltrends.com, “When you ask older people what’s the thing they least want to give up, it’s the car keys, because they represent freedom and independence and control.”

Here is another thing to consider. Nearly one-in-five Americans has a disability that may affect their driving abilities. Eighteen million Americans have a disability that hinders their ability to walk two city blocks. The landmark Americans with Disabilities Act dramatically increased the requirements for businesses to have handicapped parking spots available.

This may be less of an issue when autonomous vehicles are on our nation’s highways and roads. Our senior citizens, people with disabilities and others who need alternative mobility options will continue to maintain a level of independence that they don’t possess now.

Here are some numbers to think about. According to AARP, today there are more than 45 million people in the U.S. age 65 or older. By 2030, the number will climb to more than 70 million people. Eighty percent or 36 million people today over 65 have valid driver’s licenses. The majority of today’s seniors live in car-dependent suburbs or smaller to mid-sized towns and have no access to reliable public transportation. In addition, 90% of all people over the age of 65 say they intend to stay as long as they can where they live now.

Driving a car is one of those deceptively complex human behaviors that computers and machines have, until recently, struggled to duplicate. Basic traffic maneuvers such as stopping at a red light or staying in your lane and not running into anything was obtainable. However, we all know driving is not that simple. On even a short trip, we make dozens of decisions behind the wheel. Do I speed up or slowdown as the car on the ramp attempts to merge. Does the driver to my left realize he cannot make a right hand turn from that lane? Do I drive through or around that pothole or puddle of water? At dusk, can I see and stop in time if a deer runs in front of my car? It has just been in the last several years that technology has come together at the right time to make widespread development and use of autonomous vehicles a reality. For senior citizens wanting to maintain their independence and remain mobile, autonomous vehicles will be part of the solution.

The automobile manufacturers and other experts say a significant number of AVs could be deployed on our highways and roads in ten years or less, and this will bring with it transformational changes on our transportation system.

Stephen Gold, 68, has no children and lives alone in Michigan. He told the New York Times that while his driving skills now remain steady, he could see a time when he cuts back or stops driving altogether. “If I were a good driver in a few years, I would consider a semiautonomous vehicle. And if I were in a situation where driving would be too physically difficult, then I would consider an autonomous vehicle.”

Experts say one of the keys to successfully having senior citizens become comfortable with autonomous vehicles is trust. They have to feel the technology and the car are reliable and will get them to their location and back home safely every time. They need to know the technology in the vehicle is better than their own eyes and reflexes. So far, the early indications are good. AARP says seniors are easily adapting to advanced safety features like adaptive cruise control, forward emergency braking, lane departure warning systems, back up cameras, automated parking and blind spot monitoring and intervention. All of these technologies are key components in the development of fully autonomous vehicles. These technologies and many others will be on display October 29th-November 2nd at the ITS World Congress in Montreal. For more information go to itsworldcongress2017.org.

We have seen older Americans embracing mainstream technology over the past 10 years. Who would have imagined it would be routine for grandparents across the globe to connect with their children and grandchildren via Skype or FaceTime? Or that senior citizens are the largest growing group of Facebook users?

As former President Barack Obama wrote in an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in September, 2016, “American innovation is driving bigger changes, too: In the seven-and-a-half years of my presidency, self-driving cars have gone from sci-fi fantasy to an emerging reality with the potential to transform the way we live. Right now, for too many senior citizens and Americans with disabilities, driving is not an option. Automated vehicles could change their lives.”

We could not agree more.

Written by: Dan Ronan, VP, Strategic Communications, Intelligent Transportation Society of America

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