Senior citizens and new technologies haven’t always mixed well. Setting up a mobile device or unboxing a new computer can be challenging for even those who have bridged the digital divide. While much of today’s technology often feels out of reach for America’s senior citizens, autonomous vehicles might be the breakthrough technology that enables seniors to easily and independently get from point A to point B without the worries of safety, security, and traffic.
Senior citizens operating their own vehicles can be dangerous to themselves and to others. Men ages 80 to 84 have one of the highest car crash death rates, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Elderly female drivers don’t fare much better, experiencing only slightly lower fatality rates than male teenagers. Couple these alarming fatality rates with the knowledge that 94 percent of these accidents are caused by human error and it becomes clear that seniors need better transportation options. Enter autonomous vehicles as the safer alternative to reduce crashes and fatalities. AVs are not programmed to drive over the speed limit, operate under the influence of alcohol or drugs, become distracted, get lost, fall asleep, or engage in road rage.
Independent living neighborhoods and retirement communities are well-suited for autonomous vehicle fleets to become a safe and easy-to-use mode of transportation. Boston-based Optimus Ride was founded with this application in mind. We are focused on delivering the fastest path to fully autonomous driving, and early on we identified campuses and similar localized communities as the optimal way to create safe, efficient, and equitable mobility for all. The path to widespread AV adoption is not without its technical, regulatory, and societal challenges such as equitable access; however, small communities, like retirement communities, present relatively sheltered, low-speed environments that are ideal for autonomous vehicle transportation systems to have a real impact. A community-based approach offers both safety benefits and the ability to customize the autonomous experience for the needs of the passengers. Optimus Ride has deployed fleets of autonomous multi-passenger shuttles designed to be flexibly routed for individuals or small groups, providing mobility within the community. In many deployments, we provide “first and last mile” mobility, enabling riders to connect to transit systems to travel outside the community.
For example, when a fleet of AVs was deployed at Fairing Way, a 55-plus life-plan community at Union Point in South Weymouth, the senior community members were actively engaged and eager to ride. The key to rider engagement and adoption is developing an AV ride experience that is safe, simple, and easy for anyone to use. A typical senior-friendly rider experience entails booking a ride using a mobile phone app and having a range of times for any trip as well as a convenient pick-up/drop-off location within the community. In this case, the AV fleet then serves as a community shuttle, waiting as passengers enter and exit the vehicle.
Shortly after the fleet was deployed at Fairing Way, Optimus Ride found that the majority of the senior residents behaved as if they were being chauffeured by a professional limousine driver while in the AV. They either started using their cell phones, talked to other riders, or simply enjoyed being a passenger. Many senior riders became champions of the technology by advocating its use with other community members, friends, and family. Despite the perception that older Americans, and Americans in general, are hesitant to ride in AVs, early deployments of Optimus Ride in senior living communities have shown that demonstrations, education, and advocacy of AVs lead to acceptance and increased use by seniors.
Seniors have varying mobility needs and should not be treated as a monolithic segment of society. Some members of the community are more active and commute more frequently, while others require additional planning and consideration in their daily or weekly transit. AV systems can be designed to meet a range of community member needs.
The potential impact of AVs for anyone over the age of 65 is significant. The Census Bureau has projected that by 2035 approximately 78 million people in the United States will be 65 years or older, and this population will exceed the total number of those under the age of 18. Additionally, the number of seniors living in 50-plus majority concentrations has tripled since 2000. By taking a thoughtful approach to how we as a society use autonomous vehicles, we can unlock the industry’s advancement for senior citizens in their backyards.
The transformation of mobility systems will not happen overnight through some magical AV silver bullet for the silver generation — there will be a period when human and robotic drivers will coexist. But this transition can be accelerated here in Boston — the hub of innovation for America.
Ryan Chin is a cofounder of Optimus Ride and served as the CEO for five years.