Self-driving fleets could keep seniors mobile

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

The coming mobility revolution with self-driving cars and ride-hailing fleets could be a godsend to the aging population. But they may need some convincing that robotic cars are safe.

Giving up the keys is one of the most difficult situations that older Americans face, Nancy LeaMond, chief advocacy officer for the AARP, said at a Tuesday panel on the future of automotive technology at the Detroit auto show.

“And three-quarters of seniors live in areas without public transit options, so not driving means not being able to get to the doctor, grocery store, visit friends and participate in other activities outside the home,” she said.

LeaMond predicted the problem will become even worse before self-driving cars become ubiquitous. And she said it’s vitally important that we find and support transportation solutions for older Americans.

U.S. lawmakers on the panel Tuesday agreed, sharing stories of taking the keys from their own elderly parents as they talked up pending legislation that would allow automakers to sell thousands of self-driving cars.

“I’ve got two senior parents, 93 and 88,” U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, said. “They don’t drive anymore. It was real hard taking the keys away from them, and I kept saying ‘No one better do that to me.’ But you’ve got to find rides to go to church, to the store, to go out for a meal, to go see some friends.”

Under legislation approved by the U.S. House and pending in the U.S. Senate, automakers and technology companies would each be allowed to sell thousands of self-driving cars per year. They would be required to demonstrate those vehicles can match the safety standards of traditional cars.

Safety advocates have accused automakers of rushing to put self-driving cars on the road at the risk of public safety, and Congress of turning a blind eye to repeated warnings about potential safety risks that come with autonomous vehicles.

“Let’s not have the arrogance of the algorithm,” said panel member Joan Claybrook, a former Public Citizen president who was National Highway Traffic Safety administrator in the late 1970s. “The excitement and the future with these vehicles is very interesting, but it has never been shown that there is going to be more safety with these vehicles in any substantial study that I’ve seen. I don’t think it exists.”

She chided lawmakers for taking an “anti-regulatory tilt” in crafting their self-driving bills and giving automakers the ability to request what she called “massive exemptions” to federal motor vehicle safety rules that currently require cars to have human operators.

Sherif Marakby, vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification for Ford Motor Co., defended the industry’s testing of self-driving car prototypes, saying automakers have developed the expertise in building safe cars over their century-plus of existence.

“Doing redundant systems, systems that don’t fail, systems that if there is a failure, there is something else that will take over, whether it’s steering the vehicle, or braking or accelerating, that requires a lot of the automotive talent and skill in not only development, but also the manufacturing of the vehicles,” he said.

LeaMond said automakers are going to have to work to win over senior drivers who are skeptical about the technology. She cited a recent AAA survey that found that 78 percent of Americans surveyed are afraid to ride in a driverless car.

“Companies marketing and selling (autonomous vehicles) will need to train their people to support drivers of all ages,” LeaMond said. “We know older people much rather do in-person workshops, while younger drivers are more comfortable figuring things out for themselves. So there’s clearly a lot of education that needs to take place.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing