Seniors, Not Hipsters, Will Get Self-Driving Cars First

google car
Google's cute little self-driving car of the future is no longer a thing; they have moved on. (Photo: Google)

Self-driving cars? We're all excited. But who will climb into the non-driver's seat first?

Brad Templeton, a consultant on the Google self-driving car team in 2011 and 2012, sees that early adopters of the technology will be ... senior citizens, baby boomers actually. It may seem counterintuitive — young people usually take the first plunge into the new thing — but in this case it makes total sense.

Templeton told The Wall Street Journal that suburban boomers who can’t drive anymore may face the choice of giving up their homes (because the suburbs don't have good public transportation) or putting technology behind the wheel. Initially, however, it’s only going to work in closed retirement communities. In addition, Templeton sees Google putting self-driving cars to work in their headquarters in Mountain View, California, or Ford may uses them in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

golf carts in a retirement village
Yes, these golf carts are standard issue for retirement villages, but why not replace them with hands-free, self-driving cars?. (Photo: Tim Welch/flickr)

Self-driving cars might handle only some of the streets, but wouldn’t be forced into pre-programmed routes. They would take you where you want to go. That could happen fairly quickly — like this decade.

I’ve been, and remain, skeptical that autonomous cars as people imagine them — sitting in the back, playing with your phone, with the vehicle in charge — will happen before 2030. Yes, Tesla just showed off some wonderful self-driving features, and nearly every automaker has a team working furiously.

The technology is within reach now, but the liability (who’s responsible in an accident) is a huge question mark. It’s only going to work really well if cars can talk to and avoid each other, Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication? Sure, but it will be many years before most cars have it.

Closed communities, with only a few roads, slow traffic and common destinations — the clubhouse, the supermarket, the library — we can do that right now.

Jigar Shah speaking at SXSW Eco 2014
Jigar Shah (right) at SXSW Eco 2014 suggests charging for mobility by the mile. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

And this scenario says goodbye to car ownership. I led a panel on car sharing at SXSW Eco in Texas last week, and it’s sweeping the country from established players like Enterprise and new peer-to-peer companies like Getaround that help people share their own vehicles. Autonomous cars fit the car sharing model like a glove.

“It costs $900 a month to own the average car, and I think many people would rather pay a cost per mile when they need to drive,” said Jigar Shah, author of "Creating Climate Wealth," at SXSW Eco.

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. I’ll get billed automatically as part of my regular monthly fees.

Costs will be low because there’s no overhead for drivers or office staff. The cars themselves will do all the paperwork. We’ll see this at least in pilot form before 2020, guaranteed.