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 self-driving 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, Michigan-based 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.
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,” MIT AgeLab’s Coughlin said.
Fully self-driving cars are still years off, however. Automakers and technology companies are using artificial intelligence to help teach them not just to avoid collisions and read traffic signs but also to respond to different types and needs of passengers. Older people, for example, might have several medical appointments and want to tell the car to take them to a specific doctor.
Engineers at Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., are evaluating ways riders can interact with their cars, including by giving voice commands, according to spokesman Johnny Luu. The vehicles currently give verbal warnings about their intended path, including lane changes, he said.
The small white robot cars Google is testing seat two passengers. Swanson rode in a modified Lexus sport utility vehicle with the same technology. She sat in the back seat with her 70-year-old daughter; a driver and another Google employee were in the front.
When asked if companies will use older consumers as guinea pigs for autonomous vehicles, Coughlin said he doesn’t think so, partly because there are bound to be “transition problems.” Younger people “tend to trust technology without verifying it, while older people want to understand what’s happening.”
This may create a marketing challenge for manufacturers developing robot cars. Many baby boomers, in fact, wouldn’t buy a self-driving vehicle, according to a November 2015 study by MIT’s AgeLab and The Hartford, a Connecticut-based insurance and investment company. While 70 percent of the 302 participants said they’d like a test drive, only 31 percent would purchase one, even if it were the same price as a regular model.
“They’re still less enthusiastic about using systems where they have less control,” said Jodi Olshevski, a gerontologist and executive director of the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence, a unit of The Hartford.
June Raben, 86, isn’t ready to yield control to a computer, even though she has an iPhone, an iPad and uses WhatsApp mobile messaging with her granddaughter. She gave up driving a year ago after an accident totaled her car and left her deeply shaken. She now uses the ride-hailing service of Uber Technologies Inc., which is also working on autonomous vehicles.
“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,” said Raben, who lives alone in a Miami Beach condo and likes the social aspects of chatting with Uber drivers. As autonomous vehicles evolve, however, “I can guarantee you that my 15 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren will all be driving robot-driven cars, plus many other robot-driven objects, after I’m gone.”