Vehicle Automation Holds Promise for Older Drivers

senior woman driving car

senior woman driving car

The headlines have recently been full of stories promising self-driving cars that allow passengers to relax and take it easy on the way to their destinations. Such capability could be life-changing to many seniors who are no longer able to drive safely on their own. To investigate the state of the technology, and the potential benefits for an aging population, the Stanford Center on Longevity (SCL) and the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS) jointly convened a conference bringing together experts from the auto industry and academic experts on both cars and aging. The resulting presentations and discussions revealed a more nuanced view of the situation and presented both opportunities and obstacles on the path to self-driving cars.

The event began with a number of briefings on auto technology, followed by similar briefings on how the population is aging, both individually and as a society. These presentations can be viewed in full on the conference summary website. What became evident was that the headlines are ahead of the technology. Truly self-driving automobiles are still likely 15-20 years away. The issues are reliability and safety. The self-driving car of today performs well in most “normal” situations, but must pass control back to the driver under a number of difficult conditions. Until the car can operate in all required conditions with overwhelming reliability, a capable driver is needed.

With this situation in mind, the discussion turned to what is possible now and in the near future. New vehicle automation technology is being introduced piece by piece, including a number of technologies already finding their way into new vehicles. Smart headlights, blind spot warning systems, and self-parking are all examples of technologies that aid the driver without assuming full control.  Collision avoidance systems and drowsy driver alerts will likely be available in the near future. Conference co-sponsor (along with AARP) the Hartford has surveyed both experts and drivers for their “Top Ten” new vehicle technologies. The results are available on the Hartford website.

The final phase of the conference asked researchers and experts to look further out and speculate on some of the potential ways vehicle automation could help in the future.  One particularly interesting discussion was centered on night vision, which typically deteriorates with age. Using infrared vision, the auto could augment the driver’s own vision at night and identify potential hazards and other vehicles. This technology is in development, but still requires work on how to introduce this new visual information without distracting the driver. Many ideas revolved around the car’s new ability to monitor driver health and driving performance. For example, a vehicle could potentially monitor performance and suggest additional training for particular types of driving before an accident occurs. It might even be possible to view the car as a health data-gathering device that could keep an eye on long-term changes in measurements like heart rate and reaction time and raise a flag when changes occur.

Vehicle automation is fast-moving field and we can expect to see new technologies introduced almost yearly in the near future. These technologies hold great promise for helping all drivers to stay safe and for extending the capabilities of older drivers.