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The idea that seniors’ cars could one day function as their own personal chauffeurs is becoming a present-day reality. At least that’s the case for driverless cars as Nevada, Florida and California have adopted laws that allow these “autonomous vehicles” to cruise their cities’ highways, byways, boulevards and avenues.
The technology is not yet available to the public, but it may be in the next 10 to 15 years, says Jude F. Hurin, DMV Services Manager III of Management Services and Programs Division at the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles.
“It’s very real and can come very soon,” says Hurin.
Steering this innovation is none other than the Silicon Valley tech giant, Google, having received its “driverless license” from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles in May 2012.
Google’s car turns, brakes and accelerates all on its own, using video cameras, radio sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic. Detailed maps stored within the car’s database help it navigate the road ahead, according to Google engineer Sebastian Thrun, who is also director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
The driverless car is one of the latest projects undertaken by Google X, the company’s “secret” laboratory facility whose reported other projects include out-of-this world innovations like space elevators and Internet-enabled eyeglasses.
This type of technology could mean greater independence for millions of seniors nationwide, even though they are not actually driving the cars themselves, says Heather Hawkins-Fancher of the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles.
“[Driverless cars] still provide seniors with mobility, so they do not have to rely on family members to carry out their daily routine activities,” says Hawkins-Fancher. “It would help them not feel like they’re trapped.”
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Hawkins-Fancher, who has experience working the DMV counter, can attest to the sense of loss that comes along with having a license revoked, especially when health issues have become an obstacle to operating a motor vehicle.
While renewal provisions may vary from state to state, 28 states and the District of Columbia require additional procedures for older drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
For drivers older than a specified age—typically 65 or 70—renewal procedures include accelerated renewal cycles that provide for shorter periods between renewals, a requirement to renew in person rather than electronically or by mail.
If a person’s fitness to drive is in doubt because of the person’s appearance or demeanor at renewal, IIHS notes that state licensing agencies may require applicants to undergo physical or mental examinations or retake the standard licensing tests (vision, written, and road).
Google’s innovation can come in handy here, she suggests, as the vehicle’s 360-degree camera can provide a range of scope that reaches beyond the peripheral capabilities of the human body.
A segment from CNN last year even showed that a blind person could get from point A to point B using Google’s driverless car.
“The most exciting piece of that [segment] is that individuals—whether seniors or handicapped persons—who have had their driving privileges taken away because of their situations, can get those privileges back,” says Hawkins-Fancher.
In Nevada, drivers must renew their licenses every four years. There is no accelerated renewal cycle for older drivers as state law specifies that “age alone is not a justification for reexamination,” however, drivers aged 70 and older must provide a medical report if they wish to renew their license by mail, according to IIHS.
For those unnerved by the thought of a computer behind the wheel, the state of Nevada has developed a series of regulations Google must meet before taking its self-driving car to the streets.
The most significant of these regulations included a compliance certificate to ensure that Google’s invention was in fact safe for public roadways, says Hurin.
The certificate, according to Hurin, says that the vehicle meets safety standards within Nevada state laws.
“It takes liability away from the Department by placing more responsibility in the hands of vehicle owners and manufacturers,” he says.
The Nevada DMV had to see firsthand these vehicles’ safety features before passing AB511 in June 2011, the law that legalized driverless cars in the state.
While autonomous vehicles may be a decade away from the public’s grasp, the time for an “older driver vehicle,” might already be here, according to David Eby, a research professor and head of the Behavioral Sciences Group at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).
“With age comes the greater likelihood of age-related health problems,” says Eby.
Because of this, he continues, there is a demand to design a car that helps older adults overcome age-related deficits.
Senior design features include ingress and egress seating that makes it easier for older adults to get in and out of the vehicle; comfortable seating; visibility; dashboard design that is not confusing; as well as a navigation system.
“There’s a whole class of things, ranging from simple to complicated,” says Eby. “The key is not to overload seniors with information they can’t use at the time.”
A key issue here, according to Eby, is that not all older drivers are the same.
Brenda Vrkljan, Ph.D., and associate professor of occupational therapy at McMaster University, shares a similar sentiment.
“There’s always a fine line between advanced technology and distraction,” says Vrkljan. “Since many older adults have a difficult time with divided attention, it is important to include them in the design process.”
Part of the Candrive project, a Canadian research network dedicated to improving the safety of older drivers, Vrkljan finds that when seniors are looking for a vehicle, they are not particularly concerned about price or reliability, but rather about finding the best fit that suits their particular needs.
Unfortunately, there is a stigma against older drivers that dissuades automobile manufacturers from addressing the transportation needs of an older demographic, suggests Vrkljan.
“Seniors are an important consumer group,” she says. “Like most people, they want the biggest bang for their buck.”
Even if auto manufacturers take notice of an older consumer pool, research will have to be done as to how to market a car for older drivers, says Eby, because seniors are not going to want to drive something that is advertised as an “old person’s car.”
“Driving is important to everyone in the U.S., especially for older people since there are little alternatives,” he says.
Written by Jason Oliva