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Self-Driven Cars Promise Freedom for California Seniors

by Kimberly Johnson
Self-Driven Cars Promise Freedom for California Seniors

With more than 43 million people in the U.S. now 65 and older — and 10,000 more hitting that mark every day — aging Americans are a natural target market for self-driving vehicles. Mobility concerns (like getting to the doctor or the grocery store, and seeing family and friends) become paramount for seniors, especially since 79 percent live in suburbs and rural areas. Self-Driven Cars Promise Freedom for California Seniors
California is a mecca for automation and already has bills in place to pave the way for self-driving vehicles on public roads. Automation could be a boon for the elderly, but in order for the Golden State to maintain its upswing, it’ll also need to address mounting concerns about the technology itself.
California Creates Safety and Performance Standards
In 2012, California enacted SB 1298, which mandates that the Department of the California Highway Patrol adopt performance requirements and safety standards that make sure autonomous vehicles operate safely on public roads within the state. The bill also allows driverless cars to be tested and operated on the public roads within California as long as they adhere to the performance requirements and safety standards required by the bill.
All of this might seem like common sense, but driverless cars still represent relatively new technology that requires an immense amount of testing, safety precautions, and legislation. But even so, the earliest phase of self-driving vehicles could be enormously beneficial for older drivers, as these systems are designed to improve reaction time and assist with steering control. You may even recall the semi-autonomous Tesla that transported its owner to the hospital when he suffered a pulmonary embolism on the freeway.
It’s important to note, too, that self-driving cars are poised to evolve in stages—beginning with driver assistance technology. Though the technology is in its infancy, the obsolescence of the driver is on the horizon, and what were once vital components of the automobile may become antiquated. Such relinquishing of control, however, is a foremost issue among senior drivers.
Yet Another Step toward Full Autonomy
A bit more localized, SB 1592 (passed in 2016) allows the Contra Costa Transportation Authority to conduct a pilot project that tests driverless cars that aren’t equipped with a steering wheel, brake pedal, an accelerator, or a driver inside the vehicle — as long as the testing is only conducted at safe, specific locations dictated by the bill, and as long as the vehicle only travels up to certain speeds.
This may seem a bit extreme, but driverless cars without these features are becoming the new norm. The more they’re tested, the safer they’ll become as manufacturers work on defects and fix potential safety hazards.
Theoretically, the results may prove staggering. Many seniors in the state of California live in remote regions, including Placer, Shasta, and Madera. Public transit and rideshare services in these areas can be scarce. But fully autonomous vehicles could help bridge the gap, enabling seniors to get around far more efficiently and on their own time.
This biggest hurdle, however, is building trust. To be sure, drivers of all ages are ambivalent about driverless cars—but it’s particularly disconcerting for seniors who are most concerned about technological failure. Even cutting-edge technology isn’t immune to defects, and should an issue arise on the road, seniors will have to know what to do. That means creating technology that not only has near-zero risk but is also extremely intuitive for users of all ages.
Federal guidelines
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) stated, “The development of advanced automated vehicle safety technologies, including fully self-driving cars, may prove to be the greatest personal transportation revolution since the popularization of the personal automobile nearly a century ago.”
Similar to California’s bills, the DoT has proposed requiring all new light vehicles to be equipped with autonomous technology—namely, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication. Part of the proposal aims to standardize the language through which vehicles talk to each other about braking status, speed, and even road conditions. It is with this high-volume exchange of information that vehicles can become progressively more autonomous and thereby safer. For older drivers, particularly aged 70 and up, it could mean not only increased mobility and independence, but also savings on auto insurance premiums.
Remember, car insurance rates are determined, in large part, by risk profiles assigned to individual drivers. Because V2V communication helps remove much of that risk, older drivers who would’ve otherwise seen higher premiums might actually save instead. What’s more, that high-octane data could potentially be leveraged to create prodigiously tailored pricing profiles, which can lower costs all the more.
There is a caveat: Consumers—particularly older (and savvier) generations—may not be too keen on having such granular information being collected about them. While the data being exchanged and accrued mostly pertains to driving habits—around which V2V systems tailor their functions to improve autonomy—it could still amass raw data about where drivers live, when they drive, and what they see on frequent routes. The automobile could therefore become an invaluable data repository coveted by companies and even hackers.
For this reason, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is pushing for regulations that assure consumers know how their data is being shared and used. The bill has yet to be fully fleshed out and is being met with a fair degree of industry resistance. State-level oversite could help set a more promising trajectory.
Will Senior Drivers Embrace Driverless Tech?
California is the vanguard of driverless car technology. As such, automakers and regulatory bodies in the Golden State need to work with skeptics to ensure the technology is intuitive, and that safety and privacy concerns are addressed. Among the most skeptical of the driverless car are the very people who could benefit from it the most. It’s only when manufacturers are successful in mitigating warranted concerns among seniors that the self-driving tech can really take off.
By Stephanie Braun
Stephanie Braun is a director of Auto Product Management at Esurance, where she is responsible for designing the company’s auto product lines and managing telematics programs like DriveSense Mobile. Stephanie has 11 years of experience in the industry, focused primarily on product design and launch, pricing and product innovation. She currently writes for Esurance about auto innovations and their effects on the insurance industry.

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