Wholly automatic driving

Photo credit: Del Mitch (Flickr: Creative Commons )
Photo credit: Del Mitch (Flickr: Creative Commons )

Mobility, as Age UK is constantly arguing, is a key to social engagement and active ageing. Bus travel is getting better in terms of passenger information, but public services funding means bus services are frequently faltering, so using a car is often the only option. The good news is that cars are getting easier to drive, and wholly ‘autonomous’ cars are just over the horizon.

Power steering and electrically operated windows have been around a long time, and Americans have had cruise control for ages. Sat-navs are ubiquitous, and now many manufacturers are offering assisted (or even hands-free) parking, automatic braking, and a lane-keeping assist service.   The chief executive of Jaguar Land Rover, Ralf Speth, recently predicted more changes to car technology in the next five years than we have seen in the past 25 years, and Volvo has a Drive me London’ programme which plans to have real customers and their families in 100 self-driving cars within two years.

Driverless cars have had a mention in the last couple of Budget speeches, and last month’s Queen’s Speech promised a Modern Transport Bill, which, amongst other things, will encourage potential investors in autonomous vehicles, and ensure that appropriate insurance is available to support the use of autonomous and driverless vehicles. The Association of British Insurers is very keen on this technology, seeing it as a great leap forward in car safety which could revolutionise the cost of motor insurance.

Older people are not yet so sure.   A recent survey by IAM RoadSmart (formerly the Institute of Advanced Motorists) found 20% thinking driverless cars were a good idea, while 34% saw them as a bad idea.   A poll by Age UK found seven people would not use one for every two who would. The main anxiety is that people wouldn’t feel in control, and yet we happily clamber into aeroplanes which ‘fly-by-wire’ often enough.

These issues were up for discussion at a day of lectures and presentations arranged by Age UK and Driving Mobility (the Forum for the excellent Mobility Centres) at the Mobility Roadshow held at Silverstone this year. This vast exhibition showcases the cars, minibuses, mobility scooters, wheelchairs and more which already exist, and which can make a quantum difference to people’s ability to get around.

Most people find that when increasing problems crop up which restrict their mobility, they don’t really know what options to explore or where to go for advice. That’s where the Mobility Roadshow comes in. There were no driverless cars on display this time, but there were plenty of new car technologies there, and we’re not far off seeing wholly automatic cars at the Show in the next few years.

The day’s discussion also looked at the concerns around people’s health and fitness to drive. The General Medical Council is holding a consultation this year on the role of GPs and health professionals in this respect, conscious that trust and confidentiality is essential to the doctor/patient relationship, but acknowledging that GPs have a social duty to advise on someone’s competence and safety to drive.

Whilst we can welcome the extra years of life an ageing society offers, we need to be aware of the possible deterioration of eyesight, cognitive ability and other faculties as we age.   But if we can have full mobility without having to drive a car, will we not have the best of two worlds?

Ralf Speth thinks so. Driverless care will liberate the socially isolated older people who are too frail to drive safely, he believes, and he hopes Jaguar Land Rover will have one on the road within a decade (and perhaps outside his house at some point in the future).

Read Age UK advice for older drivers

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