Elderly drivers + driverless cars = huge market?
Automakers target elderly drivers eager to retain their mobility They’re “going to be the lifestyle leaders of a new technology”
Florence Swanson has lived through every American car from the Ford Model T to the Tesla Model S. Now, at 94, she’s stepped into what Google hopes will be the automotive future— self-driving cars. After her painting of a guitar player won a contest to decorate a driverless car Google is testing in Austin, she became the oldest person yet to ride in one. “I couldn’t believe that the car could talk,” Swanson says. “I felt completely safe. There was a fellow sitting at the steering wheel, but the car didn’t really need him.”
The more than 43 million Americans now older than 65, and the 10,000 more hitting that mark every day, are a natural target market for self-driving vehicles. Mobility—getting to the doctor or the grocery store, seeing family and friends—becomes paramount, especially outside big cities where the majority of seniors live. “For the first time in history, older people are going to be the lifestyle leaders of a new technology,” says Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab in Cambridge, Mass. “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 in a January presentation in Detroit. His own mother is 96; both she and Swanson gave up their driver’s license, and the freedom that came with it, about 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. Seventy-nine percent of seniors age 65 and older live in car-dependent suburbs or rural communities.”
Ford sees autonomy “as a way to strategically address an aging population” globally, says Sheryl Connelly, the company’s in-house futurist. To help design vehicles for the elderly, its engineers and designers donned a special suit incorporating glasses that impair vision and gloves that reduce finger control and strength.
In Japan, Toyota is racing to bring autonomous cars to market, partly because elderly drivers disproportionately cause—and are injured in— traffic accidents. The company is spending $1 billion on artificial intelligence and robotics technology to make cars that can overcome or bypass driver errors and reduce traffic fatalities. “We often talk about autonomy as if the goal is just to create autonomy in machines: to build a robot or a car that can move around by itself,” said Gill Pratt, a former program manager at the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, last fall when he was tapped to head the Toyota Research Institute. 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—many of whom equate car keys with freedom—want to remain mobile. Older Americans keep licenses longer and drive more miles than in the past, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says.
The number of licensed drivers 70 and older increased by 30 percent from 1997 to 2012, the institute says, and average yearly mileage for such drivers increased by 42 percent between 1995 and 2008.
But advancing age often brings poorer vision, memory loss, arthritis, and other health impairments that can affect driving ability. Fatal crash rates are highest among drivers age 85 and older, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data. That’s mainly because the elderly are more fragile and often suffer medical complications from crash-related injuries. Autonomous cars could provide seniors with the safety and convenience they need, and older people are willing to use new technology “if it provides a clear value to them,” says MIT AgeLab’s Coughlin.
Fully self-driving cars are still years off, however. Automakers and technology companies are using artificial intelligence to help teach the vehicles not only to avoid collisions and read traffic signs but also to respond to differing passenger needs. Seniors, for example, might have several medical appointments and want to tell the car to take them to a specific doctor.
“Voice recognition and natural language processing will be key,” says Danny Shapiro, senior director for automotive technology at Nvidia, a chipmaker developing hardware and software for self-driving vehicles. “The car needs to quickly understand naturally spoken language, rather than a limited set of specific words.” Google’s cars give verbal warnings when changing their paths, but they can’t yet respond to voice commands.
Even after such capabilities are developed, makers of robot vehicles will still face marketing challenges. “Younger people tend to trust technology without verifying it, while older people want to understand what’s happening,” Coughlin says. Many boomers, in fact, will need to be sold on self-driving vehicles, according to a 2015 study by the MIT AgeLab and insurer the Hartford. Although 70 percent of the 302 participants said they’d like a test drive, only 31 percent would purchase such a car—even if it were the same price as a regular model. “They’re still less enthusiastic about using systems where they have less control,” says Jodi Olshevski, a gerontologist and executive director of the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence.
Just ask June Raben, an 86-year-old who has an iPhone and an iPad and uses WhatsApp messaging with her granddaughter. She gave up driving a year ago after an accident totaled her car and left her shaken. She now uses
Uber’s ride-hailing service when she travels from her Miami Beach condo. Says Raben, who likes chatting with her drivers: “I have always considered myself a forward-looking risk taker, but I am not ready for technology to be the only one behind the wheel.”
−Dana Hull and Carol Hymowitz
The bottom line
Almost 80 percent of people 65 and older live in suburbs or rural areas. Automakers consider them potential users of driverless cars.