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Self-Driving Vehicles Take a New Turn at CES 2019

New autonomous passenger and delivery vehicles promise to improve life for people over 50 

Aurrigo self-driving car at the 2019 CES Show


The Aurrigo ZeroPod is a self-driving four-seater, designed to help combat social isolation for the 50-plus.

En español | Perhaps we’ve been thinking about self-driving vehicles the wrong way. 

Fleets of self-driving personal cars may be years off — they’ll require vast infrastructure changes, for one thing. But there are other uses for autonomous (i.e., self-driving) vehicles besides commuting to work, and products that are coming into use now promise to brighten life for those over 50.

One of them, the Aurrigo (rhymes with “amigo,” Latin for “chariot”) PodZero, is a four-seat vehicle equipped with artificial intelligence that made its debut at CES, the global tech show in Las Vegas, after pilot runs in Singapore, Australia and the United Kingdom. It’s designed for more controlled environments than a highway: retirement communities, say, or universities, or industrial parks.

“Autonomous — or self-driving — vehicles shouldn't be single-occupancy vehicles,” says Matthew Lesh, whose company Comet Mobility partners with Aurrigo, “because automation should provide that new tool to right the wrongs in our existing system: congestion, unsafety, inefficiency, social isolation.” Summoned by a cellphone app for Via (an Uber-like on-demand transit company), Aurrigo could whisk 50-plus users past some of their most vexing problems.

“As the baby boomers continue to age, yet live healthier, longer lives, they’ll still want to travel,” Lesh adds. “People get scared to drive, often for good reason. And yet they want their independence, instead of always asking a family member, ‘Can you help me? Can you help me?’ In the studies we did, the cry from everyone, and not just the disabled, was, ‘I want my independence!’ It was not about safety issues.”

Instead of a bus driver, the Aurrigo has IBM Watson, an artificial intelligence system that knows the way and can answer riders’ questions, talk about poin

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Aurrigo's vice president of autonomous programs Chris Keefe, who spent two decades as a Hollywood producer, traces the idea of his pod’s concierge Watson back to Johnny Cabs, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s robot chauffeur in the movie Total Recall

Keefe views sci-fi as the first stage of tech development, showing the way until tech catches up with imagination. So Aurrigo is a product poised midway between a wild Philip K. Dick movie fantasy and everyday reality, with the potential to put a smile on the faces of those who use it. “It can get [older people] to their doctor, the dance hall, the movies, their job in terrible weather,” says Lesh. “People say, “Oh, seniors, they’re not working.’ Well, maybe if they’re not, they’d like to but don’t have transportation.” Lesh thinks the social aspect of the four-seater and the pedestrian-like pace (25 mph) puts riders in touch with the environment and with people. “Aurrigo can reduce social isolation,” he says. “It's all about expanding personal mobility — door to door.” 

Autonomous vehicles are also beginning to serve older Americans and others as a delivery service. Udelv unveiled its Newton autonomous delivery van at CES, which uses a Ford Transit Connect Wagon guided by Apollo 3.5 driverless car technology from the Chinese giant firm Baidu. Udelv will start testing autonomous Newtons, which can go 60 mph, with Walmart customer deliveries in Surprise, Ariz., this year, and plans to have 100 Newtons running in the U.S. in 2019. Another autonomous-vehicle company, San Jose's AutoX, used a modified Lincoln MKZ luxury sedan to fetch food for visitors to its CES booth. The car, guided by autonomous technology carefully monitored by a human driver, successfully delivered its cargo of burgers and fries from a restaurant two miles away. “We spoke with several municipalities who are very interested in adopting our technology to serve growing populations of seniors who cannot drive, limiting access to food, medicine and health care,” said AutoX business and operations director Hugo Fozzati. 

Older Americans are also looking into other potential uses of self-driving vehicles. John Cirincione, 66, who's in the real estate business in Sanford, Fla., came to CES to check out the AutoX. He envisions a day when self-driving cars may be dispatched to take photos of real estate that is being appraised, as well as comparable properties nearby. He expects the vehicles do other chores in the real-estate business, too. 

“I’m just very interested to learn more,” said Cirincione.