Self-driving cars may be a boon for older drivers

The conventional wisdom that young people are the early adopters of new technology while older folk struggle to come to grips with it may be turned on its head when it comes to self-driving cars.

Tech giant Google, a leader in self-driving cars, believes the technology will be a godsend for older drivers who can no longer drive or who lack the confidence to get behind the wheel in city or suburban streets.

The oldest person so far to travel in one of Google’s cars is 94 year-old Florence Swanson. Florence was a winner in a competition to illustrate one of Google’s quirky little cars with an original piece of art. Part of her prize was taking a ride in one.

“You haven’t lived until you get in one of those cars,” Florence told Bloomberg Business.

“I couldn’t believe that the car could talk. I felt completely safe,” she said.

John Krafcik, chief executive officer of Google’s Self Driving Car Project, whose own mother is 96, believes the technology will prove a boon for older people.

“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.”

Big baby boomer market

Google isn’t the only company to see the potential for self-driving cars for the huge baby boomer market. Toyota has noted that elderly drivers are disproportionately involved in traffic accidents and are too frequently injured in them. It’s spending US$1 billion on robotics and artificial intelligence to reduce driver errors and fatalities.

Some of Toyota’s work is being done in the US and is being headed up by robotics expert Gill Pratt.

He told Bloomberg Business that the focus should be on giving people “the ability to decide for themselves where they want to move, when they want to move,” regardless of their age or illness, rather than developing autonomous vehicles as a goal in itself.

Safety concerns

However Google, Toyota and other autonomous carmakers may have some way to go to persuade a sceptical public that they’re safe. A survey by the American Automobile Association found that 75 per cent of the 1800 drivers it asked said that they wouldn’t feel safe in an autonomous vehicle.

A similar survey conducted by the University of Michigan found that Aussies were slightly less nervous about them than their American counterparts.

In fact when Fleetcare polled 1095 Australian drivers in 2015 it found them to be pretty enthusiastic about the technology, with 68 per cent of them saying they’d be “very” or “somewhat” likely to buy a driverless car in the future if money wasn’t an issue.

Half of those polled found would be “very willing” to take part in trials by travelling in a driverless car, with a further 28 per cent “somewhat willing”. Just over half of us (53 per cent) thought that self-driving cars would lead to fewer problems on the road, while 21 per cent thought that it would increase problems.

So we’re clearly quite a bit more gung-ho about the technology than those anxious Americans.

Google car crash

Americans’ anxieties won’t be calmed with the news that one of Google’s test vehicles has recently crashed into a bus in California. It’s not the first time one of its vehicles has been in a crash (there had been 17 minor crashes to November 2015) but it is the first time that the Google car was at fault.

But the news is by no means all bad for Google. It was a very minor bingle. The car was travelling at less than 3 km/h, the bus at about 24 km/h and no one was hurt. The autonomous Lexus had a damaged fender.

And it is the first time one of its cars has been responsible for an accident in six years of testing and more than 3 million kilometres of driving. That’s a pretty reassuring safety record.

Google has now re-programmed its car so that it won’t do it again.

Blog image: Google self driving car at the Googleplex, Author: Michael Shick, Date: 21 October 2015

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Categories: Technology, Safety
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