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Autonomous vehicles are well on their way to becoming a reality of life as we know it, with multiple rideshare companies and car makers already deep into testing the technology for a variety of purposes. Some experts are already thinking of ways the technology could be used to help the most vulnerable in society: the elderly and disabled.

“Autonomous vehicles are going to be very beneficial to the elderly and other groups that have challenges related to driving. If they’re going to the doctor’s office, a social event or even places of employment, it can help lessen the burden of transportation,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a public policy leader at the law firm Dentons who started the firm’s global autonomous vehicles team.

“For many elderly, at some point it’s not safe for them to drive and so the more transportation opportunities that are out there for them the better. The more active people stay as they age, the longer they live, so I think autonomous vehicles can be very helpful.”

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Tanenblatt noted that autonomous vehicles are still being tested and the regulatory environment is not complete yet, but that a number of governors and state governments have taken steps toward creating frameworks for how autonomous vehicles would function.

He was honest about the skepticism the technology may face from older users who will be wary of entering a vehicle without a driver. But he compared it to cellphones and other technology that slowly gained traction among older audiences as more young people used them.

“We have to overcome the fear that these cars are not safe,” Tanenblatt said, adding that human error is the cause of most car accidents.

“If you take the human out of it and the car or technology is driving itself they may actually be safer than what we have now with passenger automobiles.”

There are already places in the US, like Phoenix, Arizona, where autonomous vehicles are being tested in the wild. There has been some backlash after a woman was killed by one of Uber’s autonomous vehicles in 2018, but the tests have continued.

There are already efforts to make delivery trucks autonomous, and some long-haul trucking companies have looked into the technology as well.

“I think this is all going to happen a lot quicker than people believe because the cost of it—whether it’s the price of the battery or the LIDAR cameras is dropping in price,” Tanenblatt said.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if in the next 10 years, we see most major metropolitan areas having fleets of autonomous vehicles traveling around their city where people call them up on an app. It would be a game changer for the elderly for doctors’ appointments and other things like grocery delivery.”

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Gloria Berwick, vice president of operations for Spring Hills Population Health, a part of the Spring Hills Senior Communities, said she does believe this is a viable idea for the next decade assuming a number of issues are addressed.

Berwick noted that as a safety matter, Spring Hills Population Health currently limits or removes seniors’ driving privileges, which is a difficult adjustment for those accustomed to having independence.

“Autonomous vehicles could support seniors maintaining their independence while also ensuring the safety of other drivers and civilians. Autonomous vehicles represent a less-contentious solution than mandatory driver re-testing for seniors. In every case, the AVs could help our seniors access the doctor and personal care appointments, food, supplies and community gatherings essential to healthy and happy living,” Berwick said.

But she noted that many seniors living at the Spring Hills facility have not embraced technology and may be turned off by the idea due to fears about how it would work.

“Thoughtful consideration would need to be put into seniors’ training and comfort with the autonomous features of autonomous vehicles—as well as how to assess seniors’ cognitive function and ability to use the tech successfully. Rather than feel like they need to ‘catch up’ to this technology, seniors would need to feel it was developed with them in mind, too,” Berwick explained.

Rob Wunsche, director of technology planning and new mobility at DENSO International America, said he definitely thinks using autonomous vehicles for elderly and disabled transportation is a viable idea.

There is already a clear need for these populations to be able to be transported safely to locations, according to Wunsche, who added that the current options for the elderly are not great. But he noted that the cost may be prohibitive and that it would need to be tested in restricted environments.

“The most obvious use would be medical transport for the elderly. There are already businesses serving this market, often paid by health insurance companies, but the quality of service can vary, sometimes forcing people to wait hours and hours for their pickup, even though it was pre-scheduled. AVs, which offer consistent and reliable performance, could help reduce these occurrences. Also, the biggest operational cost to these companies is the driver, so AVs represent a potential cost efficiency opportunity,” Wunsche said.

“If we consider the fear of technology adoption, the elderly and disabled demographic may represent one of the biggest challenges. AVs must be a safe and comfortable experience. It’s possible that some remote monitoring and even conversation to a remote person could be a way to quickly build trust in the technology, bring a human element to the experience and add another layer of safety.”

Karen Panetta, a fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, echoed those remarks, writing in an email that many free and low-cost transportation options for seniors and the disabled require too much lead time in terms of scheduling and are not flexible.

“Autonomous vehicles would allow more flexibility, more efficient scheduling and, perhaps, even more private availability because so many vehicles would be deployed versus depending on resource-constrained organizations, like senior centers or veterans administration support,” Panetta said.

“This would also make traveling more affordable, so people could come and go frequently directly to and from their home versus needing to walk to a bus stop or train station that may not leave them at the doorstep of their final destination. People want independence and really do not like imposing on their family and/or friends to get them to their appointments.”

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