When It Comes to Aging in Place, Self-Driving Cars Won't Save Us

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Why worry about driving when a self-driving taxi can take care of it?. (Photo: Екатерина Волкова/Wikimedia Commons)

Five years ago, MNN's Jim Motavalli wrote that "Seniors, not hipsters, will get self-driving cars first." He wasn't alone in thinking this; Jane Gould, author of "Aging in Suburbia," thought autonomous vehicles would mean freedom for older people, who would be "able to transverse the vast, spread distances of the suburbs in a way that has never been economical or practical for public transportation."

Motavalli was far more restrained and circumspect than most of the writers at the time; most predicted full automation by 2020, while Jim wrote "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."

I was also a skeptic, suggesting that if it happens at all, they will be very expensive and that "AVs might make it a little less ugly for a special few."

Levels of Autonomy
We are barely at Level 2; it will be a long time before we reach levels 4 and 5. (Photo: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

It turns out we were both probably probably overly optimistic. To sit in the back and play with your phone, you need a car with Level 5 Autonomy, where "the vehicle is capable of performing all driving functions under all conditions." Maybe an older person could get away with Level 4, where the car might not be able to go everywhere at all times.

The trouble is, after all this research, and $80 billion of investment, we are barely at Level 2, and may not get to Level 5 for decades. The industry is finally admitting this. The head of Volkswagen's commercial vehicles compared full Level 5 autonomy to "a manned mission to mars." The head of Google's Waymo division said "autonomy always will have some constraints," and that true, completely autonomous car might never materialize.

The main benefit of self-driving cars was going to be for people who couldn't drive anymore, and they would need at least Level 4 capabilities. But Level 2, Partial Automation, or Level 3, Conditional Automation, in which the driver must be ready to take control, would still be pretty good for older drivers, so these improvements could still be a big help — or so we thought. Now, even that line of thinking is being questioned.

A new study from Dr. Shuo Li of Newcastle University has found that older people might have serious trouble coping with these scenarios. Li explains in a university press release:

"We're some way off level five but level three may be a trend just around the corner. This will allow the driver to be completely disengaged - they can sit back and watch a film, eat, even talk on the phone. But, unlike level four or five, there are still some situations where the car would ask the driver to take back control and at that point, they need to be switched on and back in driving mode within a few seconds. For younger people that switch between tasks is quite easy but as we age, it becomes increasingly more difficult and this is further complicated if the conditions on the road are poor."

The researchers put 76 volunteers into simulators, where they had to take back control to avoid a stalled car in the road.

"In clear conditions, the quality of driving was good but the reaction time of our older volunteers was significantly slower than the younger drivers," says Li. "Even taking into account the fact that the older volunteers in this study were a really active group, it took about 8.3 seconds for them to negotiate the obstacle compared to around 7 seconds for the younger age group. At 60mph that means our older drivers would have needed an extra 35m warning distance – that’s equivalent to the length of 10 cars. But we also found older drivers tended to exhibit worse takeover quality in terms of operating the steering wheel, the accelerator and the brake, increasing the risk of an accident."

So we may see autonomous cars in closed, protected places like the Villages in Florida that can be mapped in great detail, but for the rest of us? It's going to take a while, and it's going to be expensive. As Thomas Sedran, who's in charge of evaluating Volkswagen’s autonomous strategy in commercial vehicles, explained to Reuters:

... sensors, processors and software for so-called Level 3 cars already cost about 50,000 euros ($56,460). ... Even if this were achieved, the cost of high-definition maps and cloud computing add hundreds of millions of euros in annual costs for fleets of robotaxis or delivery vans.
Gartner Hype Cycle
We are deep in the trough of disillusionment. (Photo: Jeremy Kemp/Wikimedia Commons)

There's a thing called the Gartner Hype Cycle, where everyone gets really excited about a new technology and then we find out that it's a lot harder and a lot more expensive than anyone thought. You then slide into the trough of disillusionment (where we are now), do more work and eventually reach the plateau of productivity, where the technology sort of works.

But that all takes time, investment, technological improvement, regulatory changes, and eventual acceptance. I suspect that baby boomers hoping that self-driving cars will help them age in place are in for a very long wait.