Largest Retirement Community in the U.S. Gets a Fleet of Self-Driving Taxis

Watch out for that cyclist!. (Photo: Voyage)

Almost four years ago, MNN's Jim Motavalli saw this one coming, writing Seniors, not hipsters, will get self-driving cars first. And he nailed where they would get them:

Closed communities, with only a few roads, slow traffic and common destinations — the clubhouse, the supermarket, the library...Here’s the scenario: Happy Acres Retirement Village owns (or leases) a fleet of 10 self-driving mini-cars. As a homeowner, I can summon one with my phone and pay 50 cents a mile, get driven on my errands, and then send the car back to the motor pool, where it will park itself...We’ll see this at least in pilot form before 2020, guaranteed.

And much sooner than 2020,The Villages, the largest retirement community in the world, is getting self-driving taxis from Voyage.

When fully operational, all 125,000 residents will have the ability to summon a self-driving car to their doorstep using the Voyage mobile app, then travel anywhere within the bounds of the community fully autonomously.

This makes a great deal of sense. The Villages is all private property, so the usual rules don't apply. There's not too much worry about kids running out in front of the car because there aren't any kids. The speed limits are really low already. It's big, with 750 miles of roads and three downtowns, so there's a lot of acreage where you can try out the technology. And of course, it's full of older people, who may not want or be able to drive anymore.

Voyage car
The Voyage car looks complicated but isn't quite self-driving. (Photo: Voyage)

The Voyage taxis have Level 4 autonomy, meaning they're not quite fully self-driving. They can "operate without human input or oversight but only under select conditions defined by factors such as road type or geographic area." According to The Verge, their cars will have "safety drivers" behind the wheel, just in case.

The director of operations of the Villages notes, "Villagers love their lifestyle, and driverless technology offers a promising new option for staying mobile and active in a safe, affordable way." But according to research quoted in a wonderfully titled post Old man yells at iCloud: J.D. Power study finds aging buyers don't trust autonomy,

self driving cars not popular among older people
Old people yelling at iCloud. (Photo: JD Power)
When it comes to making the leap to fully automated cars, trust in the technology is directly linked to the age of the consumer. More than half of Gen Y (56%) and Gen Z (55%) vehicle owners say they trust self-driving technology, compared with 41% of Gen X, 23% of Baby Boomers and 18% of Pre-Boomers. Further, only 27% of Gen X, 18% of Gen Y and 11% of Gen Z consumers say they “definitely would not” trust the technology, while 39% of Baby Boomers and 40% of Pre-Boomers say the same.

But it might be different in the Villages, where according to Alex French, writing on Buzzfeed, the people are pretty adventurous. Jane Gould, author of "Aging in Suburbia," thinks they will catch on, and her research contradicts J.D. Power:

Polls show that even today, there is a surprising level of interest in the self-driving car among older people. Autonomous cars will find a ready market with Baby Boomers as they grow older or frail. In contrast to other types of innovation, it is the disenfranchised — in this case, those who cannot or should not drive — who could be innovation pioneers.
The Villages
Spot the self-driving car!. (Photo: Voyage)

I've previously been skeptical of self-driving cars and also of giant Florida retirement communities, writing that "I still believe the city is the best place to retire, with so many things to do and so many people of all kinds of ages, interests and values." But after going through the last few weeks of deep freezes, too much ice to ride my bike or even go for a run, I can see the attraction of a nice warm place in Florida. And for the promoters of self-driving cars, I can see the attraction of a big, private gated community as a test bed.

Aging expert Joseph Couglin, author of "The Longevity Economy," notes that "for the first time in history, older people are going to be the lifestyle leaders of a new technology." Once again, the boomers have all the fun and get everything first.