(Bloomberg) — Florence Swanson has lived through every American car from the Ford Model T to the Tesla Model S. Now, at 94, she has stepped into what Google (Nasdaq:GOOG) hopes will be the automotive future: self-driving vehicles.
After her painting of a guitar player won a Google contest, she became the oldest person yet to ride in a model with the company’s autonomous technology.
“You haven’t lived until you get in one of those cars,” the Austin, Texas, resident said of her half-hour excursion. “I couldn’t believe that the car could talk. I felt completely safe.”
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Google is betting others will share her sentiment. With more than 43 million people in the U.S. now 65 and older, and 10,000 more hitting that mark every day, aging Americans are a natural target market for self-driving vehicles. Mobility needs — getting to the doctor or the grocery store, seeing family and friends — become paramount for seniors, especially since 79 percent live in suburbs and rural areas.
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“For the first time in history, older people are going to be the lifestyle leaders of a new technology,” said Joseph Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab in Cambridge, Mass.. “Younger people may have had smartphones in their hands first, but it’s the 50-plus consumers who will be first with smart cars.”
John Krafcik, chief executive officer of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, featured Swanson during a January presentation in Detroit. His own mother is 96; both she and Swanson gave up their driver’s licenses, and the freedom that came with them, roughly a decade ago.
“A fully self-driving car has the potential to have a huge impact on people like Florence and my mom,” Krafcik said. “Mobility should be open to the millions around the world who don’t have the privilege of holding a driver’s license.”
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Ford Motor Co. also sees autonomy “as a way to strategically address an aging population,” said Sheryl Connelly, the Dearborn, Mich.-based company’s in-house futurist. To help design vehicles for the elderly, engineers and designers have donned a “third age suit” incorporating glasses that impair vision and gloves that reduce finger control and strength.
In Japan, Toyota Motor Corp. is racing to bring autonomous cars to market, partly because elderly drivers disproportionately cause and are injured in traffic accidents. Some of this work is in the U.S., where the company hired Gill Pratt — former program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and head of DARPA’s Robotics Challenge — to lead the Toyota Research Institute. The company is spending $1 billion on artificial intelligence and robotics technology to eliminate driver errors and reduce traffic fatalities.
“We often talk about autonomy as if the goal is just to create autonomy in machines,” Pratt said last fall when his new job was announced. The focus is more on people having “the ability to decide for themselves where they want to move, when they want to move,” regardless of limits imposed by age or illness.
Baby boomers — who came of age in the suburbs and equate car keys with freedom — want to remain mobile. Older Americans are keeping their licenses longer and driving more miles than in the past, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But advancing age often brings health problems, including poorer vision, memory loss, arthritis and other impairments that can affect driving ability.