Will Self-Driving Cars Keep Our Aging Loved Ones on the Road?

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Recently, the self-driving car has gone from futuristic plot line to imminent reality. Google, GM, Ford, Tesla, and BMW are all researching and testing automated car technology. BMW is working on a car that can drive itself at speeds up to 70 mph while Tesla has a car that can be “summoned” to its owner and Google has been testing a completely unmanned car that doesn’t even have a steering wheel.

It may be only a matter of time before we see these driverless cars in the U.S.

While the prospect of robotic cars may be anxiety-provoking to some, a car that drives itself at the push of a button could mean more freedom and mobility for older adults who can no longer drive safely themselves.

There’s no question that as we age, our ability to react quickly while driving deteriorates. Caring.com’s senior driving survey found that approximately 14 million accidents—or near accidents—in 2014 were caused by drivers aged 65 and over.

But the decision to stop driving altogether can have an enormous impact on the lives of older adults who live in suburban or rural areas. Jennifer FitzPatrick, a gerontologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University, whose book, "Cruising through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring for Your Loved One," will be published this September, sees driving cessation to be a source of anger and frustration among her clients.

"It’s the idea that [they] have to depend on someone," FiztPatrick says. “It’s not just the independence, it’s the privacy [they lose].”

A study conducted by the American Automobile Association (AAA) last year found that seniors who stopped driving—voluntarily or not—were twice as likely to experience depression. Former drivers were also five times more likely to enter a long-term care facility.

Among family caregivers, the dependency created by a loved one’s driving retirement also contributes a lot of added stress. Caregivers may have to find the time to drive their loved ones to and from work, social activities, and appointments in addition to juggling their own work and childcare duties.

An AARP study found that 80 percent of the 45 million adults aged 65 and older in the U.S. live in car-dependent communities. That population is expected to increase by 27 million over the next 15 years. As a result, the tensions that exist around driving and dependency could become the norm in American families.

So would access to driverless cars change this dynamic?

Many advocates of driverless car technology think so. If older adults are able to be mobile for longer, it could mean a better quality of life for them and less stress for family caregivers. They may even be able to stay in the work force longer.

In Japan, a country with a rapidly aging population, researchers have begun testing self-driving Toyota Priuses with older adults in the town of Suzu with the hopes of allowing them to stay active and working. Researchers in Bristol in the U.K. are working to develop a driverless car infrastructure as well. Here in the U.S., the government plans to spend nearly $4 billion in research over the next 10 years to come up with a model for nationwide regulations on how to govern cars with automated features on public roads.

FitzPatrick sees the advent of driverless cars as incredibly exciting, but it could pose some challenges for older adults and their families. Older adults who still drive often use more caution as they age: staying closer to home and only driving during the daytime. Driverless cars could allow them to go on longer trips further from home, she says, but that could become a problem if they get in situations where they need to take control of the car but aren’t physically able to.

"What concerns me is someone with dementia having access to a driverless car," FitzPatrick says. "That can be a major problem."

This autonomy could also create some tension for family caregivers, especially when it comes to being in the loop about a loved one’s health.

"A lot of older adults want their privacy," FitzPatrick says. “And adult children kind of like that their parent needs them to go to the doctor…they want to be aware of what’s going on with Mom and Dad.”

Most researchers still think it will be years before we have completely automated cars on the road in the U.S., and even then the cars may be prohibitively expensive. In the meantime, the increase in automated safety features in newer cars like self-parking, lane change alerts, and automatic braking may make driving a little safer for older adults whose reaction times aren’t what they used to be.

And for adults who no longer drive, there are also more affordable transportation options now like ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft.

"These options give older adults privacy and spontaneity," FitzPatrick says. "But then the issue is technology: Do they have the app on their phone?"

Lauren Hart

Lauren Hart is a journalist and editor based in New York City. See full bio