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”

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents - Dana Hull and Carol Hymowitz

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.”

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.

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