Wheels: Self-Driving Cars Could Be Boon for Aged, After Initial Hurdles


Mr. Coughlin said on-demand services like Uber and Lyft were viable alternatives to autonomous cars, but are not available in many areas where older adults live. Although these companies now offer limited app-free services, some older people are wary of riding with strangers and being able to identify the right vehicle. For his part, Mr. Gold said such services were too expensive for regular use.

Doris Alexander, a retired registered nurse who lives in Chicago, recently tried Uber for the first time, enjoyed it, and cannot envision going driverless. “I wouldn’t know how to act,” said Ms. Alexander, 77, who typically relies on public transportation. “The concept that I’m in a car, the car is driving, and I have no driver — it’s just something that’s a little too strange for me.”

In many cases, as with Mr. Gold, there are no children around to provide transportation. A recent study led by Dr. Maria Torroella Carney of Northwell Health in Great Neck, N.Y., found that 22 percent of baby boomers are now or at risk of becoming so-called elder orphans, with limited access to transportation.

“If I were still a good driver in a few years, I’d consider a semiautonomous car,” said Mr. Gold, who lives in Oak Park, Mich., and drives a 2015 Honda Fit. “And if I were in a situation where driving was too physically difficult, then I’d consider a fully autonomous car.”

Along with other firms, automakers including Audi, General Motors, Ford Motor, Nissan, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and BMW are all in the race to reduce or eliminate the amount of time a person in a vehicle is actually driving.

There are several levels of autonomy, going in stages from driver assistance to full automation. For example, by 2020 Honda is aiming to bring to market a vehicle with a high level of automated capability in highway situations. By year’s end, Volvo plans to put highly automated XC90 vehicles in the hands of real-world drivers in Sweden as part of its Volvo Drive Me program.

Within the next four years, BMW hopes to have cars on the street with midlevel automation. BMW and other companies are also working on driverless prototypes that have no steering wheel, brake or gas pedal.

Still, a world in which fully automated cars are common remains many years away. “It’s all going to be a slow transition,” said Nicole Carriere, director of public relations for Edmunds.com. “There will be a fundamental shift, but it won’t be overnight.”

The spectrum of vehicles eventually coming to market will allow older drivers to consider the types that suit them best. For example, some auto manufacturers are developing semiautonomous systems that give drivers seconds to prepare to re-engage to avoid collision, and will pull to the side of the road if re-engagement is not detected. Experts say such systems may not be optimal for those who take some medications or may have difficulty reorienting themselves.

Keep in mind that driving abilities vary among older adults, said Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. “It’s not chronological age that’s important, it’s biological,” he said. “There are 100-year-old drivers who are fine, and some 60-year-olds who shouldn’t be on the road.”

James Kenyon is a Detroit franchise owner of Visiting Angels, an agency that provides nonmedical home care for seniors. From what he has observed, older seniors could have a difficult time adjusting to driverless technology.

“It’s a whole mind-set change for the elderly to have something that they can’t control, and even getting their children to buy into it,” Mr. Kenyon said. “Theoretically, it sounds great, but there are so many possible impediments that have to be worked out, like, if there’s a problem, what do they do?”

One fear is ending up at the wrong destination, a worry that should not be paramount, said Oliver Rumpf-Steppat, head of BMW’s United States product requirements engineering division. Although autonomous-car production is still in the test phase, he said vehicles would most likely rely on voice-recognition systems. “You can say, ‘Take me to the eye doctor or grocery store.’ It will come back and ask which one,” he said. “Most of the time, we get it right.”

Marcus Rothoff also hopes to assuage concerns. He is the project leader of the Volvo Drive Me program, which aims to include 100 Swedish drivers over several months. One goal, he said, is to see how older drivers handle the new technology.

“We need people who are a bit skeptical about autonomous driving — otherwise we will not learn how to build trust and understand their views and expectations,” he said. “One important group is senior drivers. Ultimately, the driver interface and interaction needs to be so intuitive that no training is needed.”

Mr. Coughlin said purveyors of autonomous technology would be smart to keep older drivers in mind. “If seniors don’t trust the technology and don’t like giving up control,” he said, “it will slow down this business dramatically.”

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