Like robots, self-driving cars and the elderly make good media. [Rant on] It never ends – another admiring NPR story about Google’s self-driving car –which of course has no steering wheel or controls. Go ahead do a quick search for "Self-driving cars seniors” and then scan down the headlines. No need to read these articles – just the headlines. "Perfect for Elderly!" says AARP, "Seniors will be the first to benefit from self-driving cars!" "Can self-driving cars redefine old age?" And "will self-driving cars undermine Senior Living?" Seriously? Can the self-driving car cook dinner, clean the apartment and provide compelling social interactions, too?
NPR gives agist Google, where the median employee age is 29, a chance to stereotype. From Google's Chris Urmson, technical director of the self-driving car project: "When you think about the baby boomer generation, they're starting to get to a point where they feel uncomfortable driving or their family feels uncomfortable about them driving." Actually, that is more likely a concern for seniors aged 85+. The baby boomer generation tops out at 70. In fact, car buyers are becoming older and richer -- boomers are buying their dream cars – says Autotrader. Hint, their dream cars are not self-driving. So eager to be part of the Google-hyped moon shot, in Japan they are testing self-driving cars to keep aging motorists mobile. How’s that going? Read that article from last month, the senior in the car was not impressed with a vehicle that was driving too fast and couldn’t make U-turns. From the WSJ: As he waited in Suzu for a bus recently, Zenichi Tanaka, 84, noted another concern. "If mishandled, even the robot car might take me to the wrong place. When I think of that, I feel hesitant about it." How predictive --from those of us who have been sent around the wrong block by Google Maps.
Solving a tiny problem with a Google sledge hammer. So let’s get to the facts about oldest drivers, since baby boomers will likely hold onto the keys to their cars – and wanting them to have a steering wheel. What is the real problem and how many seniors are part of the crash fatality story? That number is 985 -- that is the number of aged 85+ seniors that died in crashes in 2014. So that is a fatality rate of 16.0 per 100,000. But if you remind yourself that the population of the 85+ was 6.1 million in 2014 – that number looks a bit different from the fatalities of 20-24 year olds, which was 4,047 in a population of nearly 23 million, or a fatality rate of 17.7 per 100,000. So what’s the chance of those young folks getting into a self-driving car to reduce their accident rates? How about a way to make it impossible to text and drive the car while it is in motion? Or would that reduce the reach of Google’s ad-display revenue?
Okay, forget about safety – let’s talk reality. Cars are on roads with other cars and trucks that are not, to say the least, self-driving. These are of all different vintages and models. There is no cutover date when those who own all of these will not be able to drive them anymore, although I would not be surprised to find out that Google is lobbying for a date certain. Thus, as self-driving cars that drivers don’t want creep slowly into the world of real traffic, with their carefully managed speed-limit compliance, their nascent inability to choose between hitting the light pole, the pedestrians or that speeding driver that wants to cut them off and pass, for a foreseeable future they will be on the road with all of us, including boomers and seniors -- who are rightfully nervous. And we will trust Google that this car has built-in virus and hacker protection, secure updates, and bug-free software. Just like their other products. [Rant off.]