AI Driverless Cars a Boon vs Bust for the Elderly, Makes You Think Twice

Dr. Lance B. Eliot, AI Insider

Image for post
Image for post
Slick new driverless cars might not be the cup of tea for the elderly that all assume

You probably know about the old saying that a low mileage car driven by an elderly person is a good buy because it has barely been used. This also goes along with the comedic routines showing a granny or grandpa straining to see over the steering wheel and fearlessly (wildly) driving a car.

Other younger drivers often dart around these stereotypical senior citizen drivers. I was even in a car accident years ago wherein someone living at a Leisure World home mistakenly used the accelerator when they had meant to use the brake pedal. My car was sitting at a red light when suddenly pow, a car from behind me plowed into my car. The elderly driver was very apologetic and said that she got confused as to which pedal was for what.

I don’t want to cast aspersions on older drivers, and we can easily make stereotypical comments about young drivers too (they are reckless, they are distracted by Facebook while driving, etc.).

For older drivers, being on-the-road can be very stressful. Someone with failing sight might have a difficult time seeing objects and cars ahead. Night time driving might be especially frightening. Their reactions times to sudden moves of other cars can be delayed. Accidents can happen. Some avoid driving at all. Unfortunately, they then can become trapped at home. They lose their ability to be mobile. This leads often times to losing a sense of identity and a lack of connection to the rest of the world.

Pundits are claiming that self-driving cars will overcome these maladies.

Elderly people that otherwise could not drive for themselves, will instead make use of self-driving cars. This will provide them with a new sense of independence. They will join once again the community and be a contributor to society. They will now be able to contribute in special ways such as volunteering their time for schools and charities. They can zip around town by telling the self-driving car to take them to places. Imagine having an always available chauffeur that will take you wherever you want to go. Exciting!

But also a bit of blarney in there too. Let’s unpack this notion that self-driving cars is a boon for the elderly.

There are certainly some positive aspects, but there are also negative aspects that seem to be left out of the equation. We need to look at both the pluses and the minuses.

First, consider the act of getting into and out of a car.

For some elderly, the aspect of getting to the car itself is torturous and sometimes dangerous. If an elderly person has an actual chauffeur (or ridesharing operator) of some kind, or let’s say a person volunteering to drive the elderly, the person often helps the elderly person get to and into the car. With a self-driving car, there presumably won’t be anyone there to help the fragile get into and out of the car. Certainly there might be someone that can greet an elderly person when they arrive at a destination, and likewise someone helping at the start of a journey.

The point though is that the self-driving car is only part of the journey and we need to consider the full set of actions involved. Of course, others might also need to have assistance getting into and out of a self-driving car, and so let’s not limit this matter to those that are elderly. Overall, there will need to be some provision for coping with this kind of needed assistance.

Next, we are assuming that the cost of the use of a self-driving car is decreased over the cost when having a chauffeur or equivalent.

In other words, presumably today all elderly people could use someone to do their driving, but the cost is prohibitive. How do we know that the cost of self-driving cars will necessarily be as cheap as using a non-self-driving car that has a driver with it? We don’t. Most assume that self-driving cars will be the same cost as any other kind of car, but we are likely to see a premium price for self-driving cars, at least for the foreseeable future in the near-term of when this new innovation becomes readily available.

You can expect that marketers are going to realize that having elderly people in self-driving cars is the perfect captive market.

Often, elderly have funds they’ve saved up. You’ve seen the various ploys used to get them to buy swamp land and other false promising deals. How much will an advertiser pay to show ads to an elderly person that is in a self-driving car and otherwise has no other place to look or hear, other than what is being displayed inside the car? Advertisers will pay plenty. We might even see “free” self-driving cars for the elderly, completely sponsored by hungry advertisers desperate to reach that market segment.

Possible too would be to have the AARP or similar associations that support the elderly becoming sponsors for self-driving cars, or perhaps pushing certain brands of self-driving cars. Car makers would love to get the glow from having an organization like the AARP say that their brand is the only true and trustworthy self-driving car. This would lead the elderly in droves to prefer a particular brand or model of car.

Speaking of trust, one issue is going to be whether the elderly will even trust self-driving cars at all.

There are already often jokes made about how the elderly don’t know what social media is, or cannot balance their checkbook online. Given their likely suspicious nature of technology, are they really going to be willing to get into a car that has no human driver? Some will, but some won’t.

Let’s also acknowledge that they might be right to be distrustful of AI self-driving driverless cars when they are still being just rolled-out. We all should have a heavy dose of skepticism. Anyone hesitant about using or being near AI self-driving cars is not a Luddite or out-of-touch simply because they have their eyes open about what the system can and cannot do. It’s a healthy perspective for us all.

Over time, this presumably will even out, in the sense that as self-driving cars become dominant, and as the population ages, you are going to have people that grew-up using self-driving cars that will see the use of self-driving cars as a natural continuation when they get older.

Suppose an elderly person is in a self-driving car, and suddenly the person suffers a stroke? What will the self-driving car do?

Will the self-driving car realize what is taking place? The old line about I’ve fallen down and can’t get up, comes to mind. There could be some kind of panic button capability in the self-driving car.

Perhaps a voice system that the elderly person can yell and get the AI to realize that something is amiss. The self-driving car might have sensors inside for motion detection and possibly body heat sensors or other biometric detectors. I suppose the self-driving car could even be prepared to drive to the nearest hospital, and perhaps even communicate beforehand to the physicians there that someone is medically in trouble and will arrive in 15 minutes.

Of course, why should we only assume that an elderly person might suffer some health aliment while perchance being inside an AI self-driving car? It could happen to anyone, and provisions about what to do need to be made for all of us, regardless of age or disposition.

We might also see a rise in a new kind of elderly companion, someone accompanying a passenger, a kind of self-driving car nanny, as it were.

This new role might help the elderly into and out of the car, and assist inside the car as needed. The person accompanies the elderly and acts as a companion, at least for the journey itself. They talk with the elderly person and interact with the self-driving car, telling the car where to go. This kind of job can be done by someone at minimum wage, and they don’t even need a driver’s license. They are simply there to be a helper related to the self-driving car and for use by the elderly passenger.

Let’s also consider that this kind of role is likely to be needed for those that are very young and riding as passengers in a true self-driving car. Keep in mind that there will no longer need to be an adult driver present in the car, if its a true self-driving car. As such, parents might have a self-driving car take their young children to school or over to the football field. Do you really though want young children traveling in a self-driving car without any adult supervision? It could be problematic.

Some believe that the AI will attempt to personalize the ride of passengers traveling in driverless cars.

The AI of the self-driving car might need to be adapted to cope with elderly passengers. For example, suppose someone forgets where they intended to go. The AI system might already be familiar with the passenger and “know” where to go. Or, the passenger might get confused and ask to go to the wrong place. The AI system might realize that the desired destination is out-of-place for that person. As a result, the AI might inquire further to make sure, or might even communicate with say a loved one of the elderly person to confirm what the destination should be.

Again, this same point can be likened to young children too. If a parent gives instructions to the AI to take their five year old child to school, suppose the child gives other instructions while the self-driving car is underway. Take me to the beach, the child says. Should the AI ignore this request?

In the near term, we are probably more likely to see that self-driving cars are a “bust” in terms of helping the elderly. It will take a while for the elderly to settle into a comfort zone of using a self-driving car. It will take a while for car makers to hone the self-driving car to this market niche. Eventually, as the population ages and as the AI gets enhanced, the elderly will become more of a boon for self-driving cars.

I realize that some of you readers might be offended at this broad generalization about the elderly, so let me be the first to say that there are many elderly that are smarter, sharper, and more alert than many younger passengers and drivers.

Don’t want to perpetuate any urban myths about the elderly.

Nonetheless, it is worth thinking about how the age of the passenger can play into the nature and actions of the AI of a self-driving car. Whether old or young, or in-between, a self-driving car should try to accommodate the particular needs of the passenger.

For free podcast of this story, visit:

The podcasts are also available on Spotify, iTunes, iHeartRadio, etc.

More info about AI self-driving cars, see:

To follow Lance Eliot on Twitter: @LanceEliot

Copyright © 2019 Dr. Lance B. Eliot.

Written by

Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a renowned global expert on AI, Stanford Fellow at Stanford University, was a professor at USC, headed an AI Lab, top exec at a major VC.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store