Driverless Cars Promise Seniors Independence

Baby boomers may be the first group of seniors that doesn’t have to surrender its car keys.

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The odds are rising that baby boomers will be the first generation that does not have to stop driving cars due to advancing age and frailty. The act of surrendering one's car keys can be an emotional and largely negative concession to the inevitable cognitive and physical declines of aging. It often strips people of their sense of independence and control, and can place heavy support burdens on friends and family.

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A reporter looks at a Google self-driving car at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Google's driverless car has logged more than 300,000 miles of self-driving on California roads.

[See 10 Cars Older Drivers Love.]

Last week, California became the third and by far the most important state to legalize driverless cars, joining Nevada and Florida. Google has been getting most of the attention here for its work developing driverless vehicles. But it is hardly alone. Major automakers have their own projects under development.

Google may want to leapfrog existing technology to point the way toward a driverless future. Existing auto companies will seek incremental changes that protect their franchises while moving toward an automated future. It's not clear what the pace of commercialization will be for driverless cars.

After all, many of the improvements promised at the 1939 World's Fair in New York still have not come to pass. And there will be no shortage of open-road lovers and skeptics reluctant to cede control of their cars to a bunch of computers—shades of Skynet and The Terminator.

But as Google, Apple, and other new-tech giants have demonstrated, the pace of change is likely to be much faster when it comes to automated vehicles. Using increasingly sophisticated sensors and software, driverless cars hold out the promise of saving lives, fuel, and time. They react more quickly to accident threats. They don't panic. They can tie into traffic grids and do a much better job of balancing traffic flows. They can optimize fuel consumption.

We already trust a lot to technology when we drive. We generally believe traffic signals and respond to GPS guidance and traffic congestion reports. We expect speed and fuel flows to respond properly when we use cruise controls. We use digitized cameras and back-up sensors. Newer cars monitor weather conditions and automatically trigger any number of safety responses. Increasingly, we even pay for auto insurance using on-board computers to record where and how we are driving. And many of these functions are voice-activated on newer vehicles.

[See Redefining Aging: What It Means to Grow Old.]

As these enhancements move steadily toward a driverless future, seniors are already benefiting from significant improvements in vehicle design, safety, and operating ease. The Hartford and MIT AgeLab recently partnered to produce a list of the top 10 technologies that help older drivers:

1. Smart headlights adjust the range and intensity of light based on the distance of traffic to reduce glare and improve night vision.

2. Emergency response systems offer quick assistance to drivers in the case of a medical emergency or collision, often allowing emergency personnel to get to the scene more quickly.

3. Reverse monitoring systems warn of objects to the rear of the vehicle to help drivers judge distances and back up safely, and helps drivers with reduced flexibility.

4. Blind-spot warning systems warn drivers of objects in blind spots, especially while changing lanes and parking, and help those with limited range of motion.

5. Lane-departure warning monitors the vehicle's position and warns the driver if the vehicle deviates outside the lane, helping drivers stay in their lane.

6. Vehicle stability control helps to automatically bring the vehicle back in the intended line of travel, particularly in situations where the driver underestimates the angle of a curve or experiences weather effects, and reduces the likelihood of a crash.

7. Assistive parking systems enable vehicles to park on their own or indicate distance to objects, reducing driver stress, making parking easier, and increasing the places that a driver can park.

8. Voice-activated systems allow drivers to access features by voice command so they can keep focused on the road.

9. Crash-mitigation systems detect when the vehicle may be in danger of a collision and can help to minimize injuries to passengers.

10. Drowsy-driver alerts monitor the degree to which a driver may be inattentive while on the road and helps alert drivers to the driving task.

[See Why Roads Are Becoming a Friendlier Place for Older Drivers.]

The Hartford suggests that drivers check their vehicle manuals to see which helpful technologies are already available, and contact their automaker for further details.

The company also polled drivers age 50 and older on their driving concerns. "The number one concern of adults 50 and older is seeing at night (24 percent)," a spokeswoman explained in an email, "followed by distractions within the vehicle such as music and phone calls (13 percent), changing lanes in traffic (12 percent) and merging onto the highway (12 percent)."

Changes have occurred so quickly that it might make sense, especially for owners of older vehicles, to rent a new model for a few days to get familiar with the latest available technologies. I did that on a recent vacation and was blown away by the new voice and touch-screen technologies. My car is less than seven years old, but the bells and whistles that so impressed me then now seem obsolete.