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Driverless Cars May Be Key to Accessibility

Enlightening conversation leads to new view of technology for older adults

Driverless Cars May Be Key to Accessibility

Angelo Merendino/AFP/Getty Images

Pilot models of the Uber self-driving car are displayed at the Uber Advanced Technologies Center.

I think a lot about what my Pop Pop would think.

My grandfather has been gone four years this month, but I still see him in his recliner in the living room, newspaper in hand and CNN on a loop. What would he think of this election? This discourse? This news cycle? I can guess, and I do. I see him shaking his head.

I also wonder what Pop Pop would think of self-driving cars. The big news in Pittsburgh, where I now live, is Uber's launching its self-driving pilot here, adding semiautonomous Ford Fusion cars to its fleet. I've seen them on the street for months, with their spinning, 360-degree detection apparatus on top and usually a couple of grad-school-age guys inside.

As soon as I got Uber's email invite to join, I signed up. "Experience the future first," it said. (I'm still waiting my turn to try one.)

I didn't always feel this way. I like new technology, but the idea of driverless cars — at first — seemed frivolous, available only to the few who'd be able to afford them. Why not invest in public transportation, and make our bus and paratransit systems stronger? That's the thought behind age-friendly communities, I reasoned. Let's first build an environment that's inclusive and accessible to all.

I recently changed my tune after a conversation with an older friend. I'll call him Robert. Robert has lived with disabilities for many years. We met through our shared interest in accessibility and walkability. He walks with crutches and is on the move so much that he wears down his rubber crutch tips once a week. We both participate in a local initiative called Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh.

Robert pointed out that while I am partial to public transportation, I have the option to drive. I have a car and a license. I can take the bus when I want to, but have an alternative when I need it — like when it's snowing, or when I'm running late or have a commitment across town. Many older adults and people with disabilities don't have that luxury. Some cannot drive anymore. Some have never been able to drive.

Self-driving technology may allow them another option, Robert explained, and that's an incredible thing. 

That's what accessibility is all about: offering choices and extending the freedoms that many of us take for granted. Robert believes in investing in transportation options, both private and public, and he reminded me it doesn't have to be either-or.

I imagine Pop Pop being pleased with this. In the final years of his life, he had to rely on friends and family to drive him everywhere he used to go by himself. Who wouldn't want an alternative, or at least the knowledge that one is in the works?

Laura Hahn is a gerontologist committed to intergenerational solidarity and age-friendly communities.

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