Older, Disabled Drivers Pose Challenge for Driverless Car Makers

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By Stephanie Beasley

May 5 — When you look at commercials and print advertisements aimed at baby boomers it becomes pretty clear that, although they are getting older, they don't want to be treated like old people. And yet as hip as they might be, a large number of the over-50 crowd doesn't seem so hip to the new wave of auto technology—the self-driving car.

Mobility and transportation access has always been a major concern for people with disabilities. The issue is likely to become more prominent as the U.S. braces for a shift in its population to people older than age 65, who could develop a number of physical disabilities as they age.

Between 2010 and 2030, the eligible-to-drive population (ages 15 and older) will have increased by almost 20 percent to 291 million from 247 million, according to estimates by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). By 2030, drivers older than 70 will make up 17.6 percent of the total driving-age population, compared with people ages 15-29, who will account for 23.8 percent, the IIHS predicts.

The time line for graying American drivers tracks with auto industry predictions for the advent of automated technologies. Companies already have started to introduce features, such as collision-avoidance alerts and hands-free cruise control, that could be helpful to drivers who need such assistance.

Age group proportions in US driving population

While drivers of all ages will benefit from these technologies, they will be especially helpful in preventing common errors among older drivers, such as not seeing an oncoming vehicle, misjudging the length of a gap between vehicles or another vehicle's speed, failure to obey traffic controls, medical events and daydreaming, IIHS spokesman Russ Rader told Bloomberg BNA.

“If autonomous vehicle technology becomes widespread and mainstream, it could make car mobility a lot safer for older people,” he said.

Ride-Sharing Companies Dive In

Outreach to older drivers and the disabled will be a focus of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets. The organization, which launched on April 26, includes Google parent Alphabet Inc., Ford Motor Co., Uber Technologies Inc., Lyft Inc. and Volvo Cars Corp.

Lyft is working with General Motors Co. to introduce automated technologies to a broad number of consumers. Alphabet Inc. announced on May 3 that it would purchase 100 minivans from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and use them to develop self-driving prototypes.

Some coalition members are lobbying lawmakers on issues related to self-driving cars. According to a congressional lobbying database, Lyft spent about $20,000 lobbying on autonomous vehicles, smart cities and transit issues during the first quarter of 2016. Ford spent about $60,000 lobbying on issues that included self-driving cars during that same period.

The coalition recognizes that it will face challenges in convincing older drivers, in particular, to embrace automated car technology, said David Strickland, the coalition's counsel and spokesman.

Strickland, who previously headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), said he is familiar with safety issues related to older drivers. As a federal regulator, Strickland said, he tried to find ways to empower adult children to take on the task of persuading parents to stop driving. Getting older drivers to embrace automated technology also could be challenging, he told Bloomberg BNA.

“I think one of the key messages we have to convey is, ‘This is a viable choice for you,'” he said. “That's why we are leaning in to have conversations with this community.”

Meeting Specific Needs

And what automated features are older drivers most likely to use? A 2015 survey conducted by the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence found that drivers between the ages of 50 and 69 were most willing to adopt blind-spot warning systems, reverse backup cameras, smart headlights, collision-avoidance systems and lane-departure warnings. Yet, while 70 percent of the survey participants were willing to test drive a self-driving car, only 31 percent said they would purchase one—even if it was the same price as a “regular” car.

Persuading baby boomers to purchase automated cars will be key, because many of them have signaled that they plan to continue driving well into their 80s, according to Jodi Olshevski, a gerontologist and executive director of the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence. She said auto companies should keep in mind, when designing cars that could be accessible to older drivers, that just getting to the car could be a potential obstacle.

“One of the things that we found is that one of the biggest challenges is getting in and out of the car,” Olshevski told Bloomberg BNA. “We hope someone out there is thinking about that.”

The National Federation of the Blind is hoping automakers understand that plans to ensure broad access to autonomous cars should extend to all people with disabilities.

“Driverless cars will advance to the state where they can reliably transport people to the point that no (human) interference occurs,” said Parnell Diggs, the federation's director of government affairs. “When that day comes, blind people should be able to use that technology in the same way that everyone else does.”

Predicted collision claim frequencies due to changing age distribution

Regulations in the Works

Diggs has been focused on spotlighting the concerns of disabled groups about driverless car development. During a public meeting on driverless cars that NHTSA held at the Department of Transportation on April 8, he made a statement urging auto manufacturers to include disabled people in discussions related to the design of autonomous cars. Diggs told Bloomberg BNA that he is hoping car companies take him up on the suggestion.

“Manufacturers have an opportunity to talk to us while there is still development going on and improvements can be made,” he said.

Additionally, he hopes federal and state regulators keep disabled communities in mind as they develop driverless-car technology. Some state efforts such as, for example, a California proposal to require a licensed driver in self-driving cars are worrisome, Diggs said. Laws like that would negatively impact disabled people and the elderly who are no longer able to drive, he noted.

Strickland said there is little NHTSA can do to thwart those types of regulations, since the agency doesn't have authority to dictate state licensing and policing laws. He said that state requirements for a licensed driver in autonomous vehicles could hamper plans by ride-sharing companies to offer customers rides in fully automated cars. That is why the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets is working to educate state policy makers about the potentially negative consequences of such laws, he said.

NHTSA Position

NHTSA is developing model state policy, as well as industry guidelines for the deployment of automated cars, which it plans to issue before the end of this year. Though state lawmakers would not be required to adopt the NHTSA model policy, the Transportation Department could provide incentives to do so through safety grants, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind has said (See previous story, 04/11/16).

The agency also is encouraging autonomous car manufacturers to consult with disabled communities regarding vehicle designs.

“NHTSA may primarily be concerned about safety, but we're as excited about the revolutionary potential that fully autonomous vehicles have to improve the lives of blind and disabled Americans,” Rosekind said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA. “We have been encouraging autonomous vehicle innovators to meet and work with the blind and disabled communities to develop technologies that could provide life-changing levels of mobility.”

Toyota Carves a Niche

Toyota Motor Corp., which has the largest number of autonomous vehicle patents among automakers manufacturing in the U.S., established a $1 billion research institute focused exclusively on developing artificial intelligence (See previous story, 03/25/16).

The company wants to increase access to vehicles for those who cannot drive, such as the elderly and disabled, Hilary M. Cain, Toyota's director of technology and innovation policy, told Bloomberg BNA.

The Toyota Research Institute is approaching autonomous vehicle testing in two ways, the “guardian angel” mode, in which the car can correct any mistake made by the driver and the “chauffeur” mode, which would allow the car to drive itself without human engagement, Cain said. The latter mode will likely be most useful to elderly people who can no longer drive due to vision loss or other physical limitations, as well as disabled populations.

Simultaneous to the company's work on automated vehicle technology, Toyota researchers also are developing a device that can be worn by the elderly and visually impaired to help them navigate indoors.

“We are absolutely now thinking of ourselves more as a mobility company than just a car company,” Cain told Bloomberg BNA.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Beasley in Washington at sbeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

For More Information

A Transportation Department report on potential barriers to the certification of automated vehicles is online at http://src.bna.com/eIg.