In the race toward the driverless future, a host of huge companies — including Google and major car manufacturers — are angling for position. What they're chasing will fundamentally change auto transportation, transferring most, and eventually all, driving responsibility from humans to computers.
Whenever we arrive at the driverless destination (there's disagreement about when but not if), it could be important news for older drivers, who stand to benefit more than most. Poor eyesight and other aging effects often force seniors to hand over the car keys and find less convenient modes of transportation.
So what exactly is a driverless car? How much will older drivers really benefit? And how realistic are the time frames?
An autonomous relationship
First, a clarification: Driverless vehicles, in the short term, won't actually be driverless. Humans will still be required. If you imagined lounging in the back seat of your car as your robot driver takes control up front, think again. That's not happening anytime soon.
In fact, the automobile industry doesn't want to call the vehicles "driverless" at all. It prefers "autonomous" or "automated driving" cars, and for now those terms are more accurate, as the first wave of technology — some of it already available — functions more like an autopilot mode on an airplane.
"We still see the driver being at the center of the driving experience," says Ford Motor Co.'s Randy Visintainer, director of research and innovation. "That's the focus of what we're doing."
In autonomous driving, the car's computer, working with sensors, cameras and other technical wizardry mounted around its frame, takes over from the driver and performs certain tasks. Many cars now on the market offer options such as parking assist, which automatically parallel parks with limited input from the driver, and driver alert, which gives a warning if driving patterns indicate drowsiness. Back-up cameras, collision warning systems, blind-spot monitors and lane-keeping technology are also fairly common now.
These incremental advances in autonomy are available on cars in all price ranges, and Visintainer says these can be especially important for older people, as they can relieve much of the anxiety associated with driving at an advanced age.
"You don't have to continually monitor what the driver up front is doing, the driver to the side and what's happening behind," he says. "The more we can provide information and manage the information and allow the driver to focus on what's important, the more relaxing the drive can be."
But Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT's AgeLab who specializes in driver safety issues, says that for such autonomous features to really benefit older drivers, the drivers need to feel comfortable and safe using them.
"Many autonomous features have the potential to help older drivers stay in the vehicle and comfortably drive for longer. However, there are significant limitations," says Reimer. "Is the driver capable of engaging with these technologies safely? How do we trust these technologies?"
Reimer points to tests the AgeLab has done with older drivers using a parking assist feature, which he calls a "wonderfully developed piece of technology."
"People get in there, they take their hands off the wheel and they're scared," he says. After a few tries, he says, most love the feature, but Reimer says many older drivers may not use such technology without being pushed to do so.