Cars that Will Drive Miss Daisy — By Themselves

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The emerging self-propelled or “robocars” lend new meaning to the word automobile — and may be the answer to aging drivers’ diminished capabilities to safely navigate behind the wheel, say Joseph Coughlin and Peter Diamandis.

While Coughlin focuses on the importance of consumer education to spur adoption of the new technology, Diamandis (who holds degrees in aerospace engineering, molecular biology, and medicine) says autonomous cars are just a small slice of the endless ways in which AI (artificial intelligence) is going to reshape and enhance our lives.

In a recent Forbes blog, Diamandis waxed rhapsodic about how self-driving cars will command a huge number of time and money saving no’s, to wit:

  • NO steering wheel, NO gas pedal, and NO brakes. It sounds a little like riding a trolley (though the latter are controlled by human conductors). A bit scary, perhaps, especially for seniors…
  • No garages, no driveways, no parking: autonomous cars will simply pick up and drop off passengers like taxis or buses, remaining in constant use. Minus private ownership, the need to store the vehicle vanishes like a sprinkling of rain on a sunny day.
  • No new roads, less traffic. These sensor-driven cars are efficient in the extreme, so they can “pack” much more densely on the road without risk of an accident.
  • No mandatory car insurance: self-driving cars are engineered to avoid crashes.
  • No ownership, just “on-demand” usage. So reverse mortgage recipients can scratch car maintenance from their list of expenses.

Yet such dramatic change from our current state of vehicle ownership begs the question: in a society that reveres both cars and status symbols, will drivers — especially those who love their classic cars or Bentleys — be willing to give them up so easily? And who will be responsible for maintaining these public conveyances? Who pays for (and pumps) the gas, checks the oil, replaces the tires, or brings the car in for regular tune-ups? Even if robocars are smart enough to know when they need maintenance, who will own this responsibility?

As we explored in an earlier post on safe senior driving and alternative modes of transportation, multiple warning signs can alert family members if grandma or grandpa is no longer safe in the driver’s seat. In this case, an autonomous car can be a positive option. And, contrary to what we may see on the road, older adults are the leading car buyers today: the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute reports consumers between 55 and 64 lead all new vehicle sales. (Possibly fueled by their reverse mortgage loans and the time to pursue their passions.)

So while the idea of fewer cars on the road, massive fuel savings, less pollution and greatly reduced risk of auto accidents sounds fantastic, “learning to trust and use these [new technologies] is a work in progress,” says Coughlin. “Responding to the changing driver experience, AARP’s Driver Safety Program, the largest driver education program catering to the 50+ market, demonstrated leadership by recently revising its curriculum to include content on new vehicle technologies.”

Hopefully, they’re also factoring maintenance into the mix. No doubt the robocars will include anti-theft programming, too. By the time most Boomers are ready for them, autonomous cars may be able to transport elders with varying degrees of physical ability safely and efficiently wherever they choose to go. Now that’s autonomy!