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Moon-dust: Media Nonsense about Self-Driving Cars and Seniors

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.]


Thanks MUCH for a VERY well-informed and passionate rant.
My nephew would say we are all Homer Simpson yelling at "the cloud".
My nephew is an IDIOT!

Won't Boomers be around 80 when self driving technology takes off in ten years? It's only a matter of "when" for autonomous cars to become common. Not having to drive in traffic and not having to worry about where to park you car is worth it alone ...no matter what your age is.