Driving toward the Future

Last week, AARP hosted an event with POLITICO at the Detroit Auto Show. The topic: Driverless cars and the Future of Mobility. Now, if you’re wondering why AARP sponsored a panel that sounds more like the Jetsons than the Golden Girls . . . the answer is pretty simple. Having safe, affordable transportation options is essential to live independently, whatever your age. And, since driverless cars are coming sooner than you might think, AARP is working to make sure that these cars of the future meet the needs and concerns of older adults.

Today, 40 million Americans age 65 and up have drivers licenses, but most will outlive their ability to drive safely by as many as 10 YEARS. Three quarters of seniors live in areas without public transit options, so, not driving means not being able to get to the doctor, go grocery shopping, visit friends, and participate in other activities outside the home. That takes a toll. Studies show that former drivers have an increased risk of depression and are more likely to move into institutional care facilities.

So, autonomous vehicles – or AVs – are potentially transformative for an aging population that needs help getting around without getting behind the wheel.

But there are a LOT of hurdles before this opportunity becomes reality. Four of these challenges are what I call the 4 T’s for AVs: technology, testing, trust, and training.

Technology and testing are threshold issues for bringing autonomous vehicles to market. A lot of smart, creative people in the automotive and tech sectors are racing to be the first-mover in the marketplace. Meanwhile, the public sector is starting to get its arms around what kinds of testing protocols and regulatory frameworks are needed.

For AVs to be successful in the marketplace, people of all ages will need to trust machines to do the driving. Right now there’s a significant trust gap. A full three-quarters of U.S. drivers of all ages report feeling afraid to ride in a self-driving car. And, a little over half (54%) say that sharing the road with driverless cars make them feel LESS safe. Those numbers are even higher for Boomers – 85% say they are afraid to ride in a self-driving car and 60% would feel less safe sharing the road with AVs.

On the brighter side, older drivers are very interested in advanced features, particularly those that improve safety. Close of half of the 50+ already have some kind of vehicle safety technology in their car and most report using what they have. Three quarters of those who don’t have these systems in their cars say they want them, and three quarters of older drivers who plan on buying a new car say they will seek them out. Bridging this gap between trusting add-on features and a full AV will be critical, particularly for older drivers who have the most to gain.

The fourth “T” is training . . .  and, I don’t just mean teaching older adults how to use new technology. Companies marketing and selling AVs will need to train their people to support drivers of all ages. We know that older drivers would much rather do in-person workshops, while younger drivers are more comfortable figuring things out for themselves. And there’s clearly a lot of education that needs to happen to help folks understand exactly what we mean when we talk about autonomous vehicles.

We’re in a very interesting window where we know the technology is coming, but we still have time before it’s ready to fully launch. Everyone involved needs to use this time wisely. That’s why AARP was out in force at the Detroit and Washington (DC) auto shows. We’re talking to the automakers and technology companies about what older adults want and need, and we’re engaging with members of Congress, federal agencies and local leaders as part of our ongoing advocacy work on transportation and mobility issues. We’re also leading the charge reaching older drivers directly through our SmartDriver courses and SmartDriverTEK offering that teaches them to use the advanced safety technologies that are already in their cars.

We have an opportunity to educate the public AND get their feedback, raising awareness and building consumer confidence and trust, so when AVs are ready to roll, consumers are ready to ride!

Nancy LeaMond is AARP chief advocacy and engagement officer. She leads the organization’s Communities, State and National Group, including government relations, advocacy and public education for AARP’s social change agenda. LeaMond also has responsibility for AARP’s state operation, which includes offices in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

You can follow her on Twitter @NancyLeaMond.

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