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The golden years: Why we’ll all love self-driving cars when we’re older

harman combats cyberattacks on autonomous vehicles at ces why well all love self driving cars when were older
Image used with permission by copyright holder
At the Consumer Electronics Show this year, most of the talk from automakers was about autonomous cars. That’s not surprising, given the CES audience and the rapid development of self-driving technology. Depending on the automaker, the promises of completely self-driving cars ranged from imminent to cautious, but all agreed that completely or mostly autonomous cars would hit our roadways in the next 10 years.

There are always exceptions, but most cars you see on the road are less than 20 years old. The average age of cars driven daily on the road is about 11 years. In fact, there are still more than 10 million cars on the road 25+ years old.

When automakers talk about autonomous cars as a boon to the elderly, they’re talking about you, sooner or later.

That means that any shift to autonomous cars is going to happen slowly. Americans are not about to junk any car before its time. Changes in the price of gasoline could accelerate a transition to electric vehicles and that could help speed up adoption of autonomous, but in the absence of a major event, it will take decades for autonomous cars to become a majority of cars on the road.

What that means is that when automakers talk about autonomous cars as a boon to the elderly, they’re not only talking about today’s seniors. They’re talking about you, sooner or later.

Weight of numbers

We took some time out from the goodies at CES to chat with Jody Holtzman, Senior Vice President of Market Innovation at AARP. The advocacy group for Americans over age 50 is active in keeping the interests of older people at the top of mind for innovators and product developers.

“The one question a CEO never wants to get from the board of directors is, why did you leave money on the table by ignoring the only humongous growth market that exists?’’ Holtzman points out.

Right now, there are 110 million Americans over the age of 50. Both the raw number of seniors and the corresponding percentage of our total population are expected to rise in the coming decades. It stands to reason that providing services to older people should be on the minds of automakers. Further, the incentive to meet the needs of older people is compounded by differences in the way generations address mobility.

“People over 50 are the market for automakers,” Holtzman told Digital Trends. “The average age of a Chevy Impala buyer, or a BMW 5-series, is over 50. They’ve got the money to buy the car, and culturally, younger people are less interested in owning a car. Once you start to get experience with Uber or Lyft and that kind of ondemand transportation opportunity, you start to think that maybe you don’t need to own a car, have a garage, and pay for all these things. Do the math! If you live in the city, it makes more sense.”

Old dogs, new tricks

We first started thinking about the generational aspects of autonomous adoption last year. We asked Sandee Perfetto, Director of Personal Auto Product Development at Verisk Insurance Solutions for her opinion at that time.

There’s a lot of evidence to indicate that uptake of autonomous technology will not be a problem for older Americans.

“The expectation is that younger drivers are more willing to jump into an autonomous car,” Perfetto told Digital Trends. “They don’t have a sense of ownership embedded into them to drive. The expectation is that older generations will stick with what they have always done – that they might not be as quick to jump to the latest technology, but I think that for the older generations, they’re looking at this as a way to stay on the road longer. It could potentially give you the ability to stay mobile longer without relying on other people.”

Many of us have experience explaining technology to our parents or grandparents. From the TV remote to smartphones, we’ve learned to be patient while people adjust to new ideas – and in many cases we’ve learned some new things ourselves.

The question is, will older drivers be willing to let go of the wheel and go autonomous?

Improved safety leads to autonomous cars

There’s a lot of evidence to indicate that uptake of autonomous technology will not be a problem for older Americans. Older drivers have eagerly adopted advanced safety features like adaptive cruise control, forward emergency braking, lane keep assist, blind spot monitoring and intervention, and rear park assist.

“Older people are the ones buying luxury vehicles,” Holtzman said, “and as with every other luxury, whether it was air conditioning, blowers in the second row, or blind spot monitoring, it always starts at the higher-end cars. Little by little, you find it in other cars.”

Volvo XC90 safety tech 37
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Virtually every automaker has committed to providing Forward Emergency braking as a standard feature of all cars sold in America by the 2022 model year. It’s reasonable to think that related features like adaptive cruise control would be become standard in the same timeframe. Not coincidentally, that schedule overlaps with the projected development of fully autonomous cars.

As automatic safety devices take more and more responsibility for controlling the car, there may be a point of no return for all human drivers.

“In one of my most interesting conversations at Waymo, the Google spinoff, they said their research showed that the more of these additional automated features you have, the worse the person’s driving gets,” Holtzman said. “They started thinking about the implications of that. This led them to say that the answer is complete autonomy. No steering wheel, no pedals, no anything.”

Freedom and independence

In the end, whether people of any age own a car or simply request a ride from a robo-taxi, the critical value is maintaining the ability to go where you want, when you want.

“When you ask older people what’s the thing they least want to give up, it’s the car keys,” Holtzman explained, “because they represent freedom and independence and control.” That echoes Perfetto’s assessment. Adoption of autonomous technology will keep elders independent longer, and that’s something we’re all likely to want for ourselves. Holtzman went further, arguing that there are far more important variables than age.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” he insisted. “There are age segments, geographic segments, and lifestyle segments, so you’re going to have a multiplicity of trends.”

In other words, what works in Manhattan may not work for people who live in small towns and rural areas, and what works for singles may not work for families, so we can expect a variety of solutions to be in play.

“What’s most fascinating to me is what does the transition period look like,” Holztman asked. “For a period of time, you’re going to have everything on the streets at the same time. You’re going to continue to have traditional combustion engine cars, you’re going to have hybrids, you’re going to have electrics, robo-taxis, and robo-shuttles. You’re going to have a lot happening at one time.”

Driving future development

Holtzman’s job is to raise questions and make recommendations to companies who want to address that huge demographic of older people, and eventually all of us as we age.

“I think the key is that the consumer has to be at the center of innovation,” he said. “Older people and those with disabilities have to be front and center in the design phase, because if you have designs that work for them, the designs will be even better for everybody else. It’s not a niche market, it’s using the insight gained by the lens of people with physical challenges to create products and services that have universal market application and demand.”

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Jeff Zurschmeide
Jeff Zurschmeide is a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon. Jeff covers new cars, motor sports, and technical topics for a…
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