Google thinks self-driv­ing cars will be great for stranded se­niors

The Pak Banker - - COMPANIES/BOSS -

Florence Swan­son has lived through ev­ery Amer­i­can car from the Ford Model T to the Tesla Model S. Now, at 94, she has stepped into what Google hopes will be the au­to­mo­tive fu­ture: self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles.

Af­ter her paint­ing of a gui­tar player won a Google con­test, she be­came the old­est per­son yet to ride in a model with the com­pany's au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy.

"You haven't lived un­til you get in one of those cars," the Austin, Texas, res­i­dent said of her half-hour ex­cur­sion. "I couldn't be­lieve that the car could talk. I felt com­pletely safe."

Google is bet­ting oth­ers will share her sen­ti­ment. With more than 43 mil­lion peo­ple in the U.S. now 65 and older, and 10,000 more hit­ting that mark ev­ery day, ag­ing Amer­i­cans are a nat­u­ral tar­get mar­ket for self­driv­ing ve­hi­cles. Mo­bil­ity needs -get­ting to the doc­tor or the gro­cery store, see­ing fam­ily and friends -be­come paramount for se­niors, es­pe­cially since 79 per­cent live in sub­urbs and ru­ral ar­eas (PDF).

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

John Kraf­cik, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Google's Self-Driv­ing Car Pro­ject, fea­tured Swan­son dur­ing a Jan­uary pre­sen­ta­tion in Detroit. His own mother is 96; both she and Swan­son gave up their driver's li­censes, and the free­dom that came with them, roughly a decade ago.

"A fully self-driv­ing car has the po­ten­tial to have a huge im­pact on peo­ple like Florence and my mom," Kraf­cik said. "Mo­bil­ity should be open to the mil­lions around the world who don't have the priv­i­lege of hold­ing a driver's li­cense."

Ford Mo­tor Co. also sees au­ton­omy "as a way to strate­gi­cally ad­dress an ag­ing pop­u­la­tion," said Sh­eryl Con­nelly, the Dear­born, Michi­gan­based com­pany's in-house fu­tur­ist. To help de­sign ve­hi­cles for the el­derly, en­gi­neers and de­sign­ers have donned a "third age suit" in­cor­po­rat­ing glasses that im­pair vi­sion and gloves that re­duce fin­ger con­trol and strength.

In Ja­pan, Toy­ota Mo­tor Corp. is rac­ing to bring au­ton­o­mous cars to mar­ket, partly be­cause el­derly driv­ers dis­pro­por­tion­ately cause and are in­jured in traf­fic ac­ci­dents. Some of this work is in the U.S., where the com­pany hired Gill Pratt -- for­mer pro­gram man­ager at the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency and head of DARPA's Ro­bot­ics Chal­lenge -- to lead the Toy­ota Re­search In­sti­tute. The com­pany is spend­ing $ 1 bil­lion on ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and ro­bot­ics tech­nol­ogy to elim­i­nate driver er­rors and re­duce traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties.

"We of­ten talk about au­ton­omy as if the goal is just to cre­ate au­ton­omy in ma­chines," Pratt said last fall when his new job was an­nounced. The fo­cus is more on peo­ple hav­ing "the abil­ity to de­cide for them­selves where they want to move, when they want to move," re­gard­less of lim­its im­posed by age or ill­ness.

Baby boomers -- who came of age in the sub­urbs and equate car keys with free­dom -- want to re­main mo­bile. Older Amer­i­cans are keep­ing their li­censes longer and driv­ing more miles than in the past, ac­cord­ing to the In­sur­ance In­sti­tute for High­way Safety. But ad­vanc­ing age of­ten brings health prob­lems, in­clud­ing poorer vi­sion, mem­ory loss, arthri­tis and other im­pair­ments that can af­fect driv­ing abil­ity.

Fa­tal crash rates are high­est among driv­ers ages 85 and older, ac­cord­ing to the in­sti­tute's anal­y­sis of data from the U.S. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion. That's mainly be­cause the el­derly are more frag­ile and of­ten suf­fer med­i­cal com­pli­ca­tions from crash-re­lated in­juries.

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