Driving their own car is important to older people, with nearly 70% of households where someone is over 70 have their own car. In July, the DVLA announced that for the first time, the number of driving licences held by people over 90 had surpassed 100,000. But the numbers who at that age had given up driving, perhaps because of diminishing cognitive skills or poor eyesight, and the numbers who were restricting their driving because they did not want to drive in the dark, in poor weather, on motorways or in the rush hours will have been considerable. Such avoidance behaviour, and especially in areas with poor public transport options, can constrain the social engagement and inclusion of older people, reducing their resilience and independence. There will be a knock-on effect on their sense of wellbeing, which in turn can lead to loneliness and a declining appetite for life, and perhaps on to depression.
Bring driverless cars into this scenario, and the agenda is transformed. That is the vision embraced by Flourish, a Bristol-based consortium of technology companies, academics and local authorities, and Age UK. Its three year research and development programme is backed by Innovate UK and substantial investment from the private sector.
Every new technology can marginalise older people, who are typically late adopters – of internet banking for example, or price comparison websites, or facebook and twitter. But the central commitment of Flourish is that we encourage the participation and collaboration of older people from the outset, and develop our programme with that input at its heart.
What have we learned so far? Touchscreen communications between the user and the car is the channel of choice for the technologists, but older people are reminding us that sometimes their eyesight or arthritis makes that unworkable – can there be alternative options, such as voice recognition? The ability to interrupt a programmed journey to make a stop for a loo would be reassuring – can we build into a car’s intelligence the availability of the nearest conveniences? The passenger may need to call a person meeting them at their journey’s end – can that facility be built into the vehicle design? All these things are possible, and there are plenty more practical suggestions being raised. The objective is to think them through at the concept stage, and integrate them into the relevant technology.
We have explored older people’s general attitude to driverless cars. Amongst those who are currently drivers, there is less enthusiasm than expressed by other age groups, but still a significant level of interest. There is scepticism about the technology actually working, and particularly about whether it would be vulnerable to a cyber attack. But older people also recognise that there may come a day when they do not want to drive, and the availability of a driverless car could assume a new importance. They appreciate the potential improvement in accident rates. They also quickly spot the advantages for people with disabilities, who may find it impossible to drive. And older people who are non-drivers welcome the prospect of driverless cars, citing the cost of conventional taxis and the generally declining availability of public transport. They feel that their opportunities and horizons are shrinking, yet they want to maintain their levels of social engagement.
The number of cars on the roads has increased by 850% since the 1950s, but the number of road miles available has grown by under 50%. So it is not surprising that congestion has increased, and traffic moves more slowly. Not only does that make driving less of a pleasure, but it contributes to poor air quality. Driverless cars could make more efficient use of road space. The average car spends 96% of its time being parked (and parking space, like road space, is at a premium). A well planned network of driverless cars could impact on that inefficiency too. Older people do appreciate the environmental and economic arguments for this revolution in transport, though many remain wedded to the idea of an exclusive, privately owned car.
Older people comprise a huge and growing part of our population. If this technology is to be a success, we need to ensure that it works for them and that they support it. Hence the Flourish commitment (and Age UK’s involvement) to include older people in the evolution of driverless cars.