Self-driving cars have long been a staple of both futuristic sci-fi and laments about how the promises of The Jetsons never came to fruition. Minority Report, a movie based on a Philip K. Dick short story and starring Tom Cruise, used self-driving cars as a backdrop for an exciting but far-fetched chase scene. In 2002, when the movie was released, the self-driving cars and the traffic lanes positioned on the sides of buildings were equally farfetched. Today, seniors in northern California are using start-up Voyage’s self-driving taxi service to tool around their gated community. Can smart lanes up the sides of high-rises be far behind? Caregivers, home care aides and loved ones can use technology to maintain mobility, independence and connection to the community.
This month, The Villages, a 55+ gated community in San Jose, launched a very limited experiment with self-driving cars. Voyage’s engineers, some of whom come from Google and Apple, chose the environment for its privacy and restrictions. The Villages has a speed limit of 25 miles per hour on its 15 miles of paved road, and has enough traffic, pedestrians, animals and golf carts to thoroughly test the wits of the Voyage system. If the Ford Fusions modified with the self-driving kit can handle the winding ways of The Villages, then they will get their chance on the open road, where anything can happen.
Are self-driving cars safe? In 2016, 40,000 people died in car accidents in the United States, which was the highest toll since 2007. Roads, drivers and cars aren’t getting less safe mechanically, but many consider the ubiquity of the smartphone and texting while driving the cause of this increase. Seniors are unlikely to be texting while driving, but older drivers do have a higher risk of accidents thanks to gradually slower reflexes and poorer vision. And as the senior population grows, so do the ranks of senior drivers. The irony is that mobility helps seniors maintain their independence, their connection to others, and their quality of life, just when driving becomes more dangerous.
Are self-driving cars the answer to the entwined problems of safety and mobility for seniors? Voyage’s first passenger in The Villages was a blind woman named Beverly, whose husband normally drives her around. The day he was unavailable, she summoned the Voyage car with a Voiceover-enabled iPhone app, and told the car where to go, a la Siri or Alexa. An on-demand autonomous car service like this means residents like Beverly can access any of the amenities in the retirement community without relying on neighbors or friends. Beverly, a devoted sci-fi fan, is more comfortable with the idea of a robot car than the way some of her friends and neighbors drive.
Whether you call them robot, autonomous, or self-driving cars, many people are wary of them, and skeptical of their safety. Self-driving cars have caused only 34 accidents in California since 2014, but the number of cars out there, and the total miles those cars drove, is very small relative to regular cars. Fun fact: humans caused of 30 of those 34 accidents, usually by colliding with an autonomous car that was observing the rules of the road very strictly and getting the way of the human driver’s expectations. The robot is usually a better driver than the human, and isn’t behaving like other humans.
Self-driving cars have great potential for seniors and their mobility in the future. Caregivers and loved ones will finally have one of the options that the Jetsons did. Can the personal jetpack be far behind?