For most of us, driving is our primary mode of transportation, so our ability to jump in the car at a moment’s notice is essential to staying connected throughout life. This is especially important as we age and our lifestyle, activities and relationships change.
As the number of people 50+ grows due to the size of the boomer generation, our society needs to think creatively about how to move through our 60s, 70s and 80s differently; we are essentially redefining what it means to grow old. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that while we are in the midst of this demographic shift, there is a fury of innovation around what and how we drive, a convergence of technology advancements and the design of our vehicles.
These advancements offer new ways for us to stay safe on the road, but they also present us with challenges: How do we learn to use the technologies? How do we adapt our driving skills as our vehicles change?
Vehicle Safety Technologies
Over the past several years, the number and types of technologies being integrated into vehicles has grown exponentially. Many features were originally introduced as optional in some luxury brands, but now they are more widely available on standard brands that are more affordable.
Today, for example, you are likely to find a back-up camera in a mid-size rental car. This is due in part to federal requirement, but increasingly, car manufacturers are integrating more technology into all of their cars primarily for the safety benefits.
Out of the laundry list of technologies that are available today, the important question for older consumers to consider is which ones can enhance their driving. Research from The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence® and the MIT AgeLab in 2012 identified a list of top 10 technologies for mature drivers based on panel of experts, with Smart Headlights, Emergency Response Systems, Reverse Monitoring Systems, Blind Spot Warning Systems and Lane Departure Warning systems topping the list (for the complete list of ten, click here). These technologies can balance out some of the normal age-related changes that may impact driving, such as changes in vision, flexibility, and range of motion.
Most of the top 10 technologies identified by our expert panel supplement the driver’s skills — they don’t function independent of the driver but rather assist or alert the driver, providing extra support. As these features become more readily available as standard in all levels of vehicles, technology continues to advance so newer features require less involvement by the driver. Examples include Parking Assistance Systems and Adaptive Cruise Control. For some people, these systems raise concerns, particularly related to drivers being too reliant on the technology rather than developing or using the necessary skills.
Learning to Drive Differently
Whether you find yourself in a vehicle with technology that makes you safer or with features that actually take over some of the functioning for you, it requires a different way of driving. In general, most of us are willing to consider adopting these new technologies and would like them in our car.
In 2015 research, The Hartford and the MIT AgeLab found that 96 percent of mature drivers would be willing to buy a car with at least one technology. So how do we learn to drive in these new-fangled vehicles? Here are a few suggestions:
- Learn about the technologies. Our online guide can help.
- Talk with friends, family, and others you know who have new features in their car, and ask them how they adapted their driving.
- Learn how to actually use these vehicle safety features; check out mycardoeswhat.org by The National Safety Council and the University of Iowa.
- If you drive a car with vehicle technologies for the first time, be sure to learn about them ahead of time and try them out in a safe environment.
- Stay up-to-date as new features are introduced into cars.
The Self-Driving Car
As we adjust to having new and different technologies in our cars, the push towards self-driving cars is moving at a fast pace, encouraged by tech giants like Google and many large car manufacturers. While the autonomous technology is being refined and outstanding regulatory, insurance and infrastructure issues are being debated, the big question for each of us is whether we as drivers are willing to embrace this means of transportation. And most importantly, will self-driving cars offer an alternate means to get around as our nation becomes more and more gray? According to The Hartford and the MIT AgeLab study in 2015, 30 percent of drivers aged 50 to 69 are willing to buy a self-driving vehicle, if it were the same price as a standard car.
Many find it appealing to stay out of the driver’s seat, and there is a lot of public dialogue about how autonomous cars can help those who no longer can drive to get around and stay connected. The complication, however, is that while the self-driving car will help get a person from point A to point B, it’s not a workable solution for everyone. Those who can no longer drive may have health issues that prevent them from walking to the car or getting in and out of it, requiring assistance from others at both ends. Thus, there may be a need for the self-driving car to do more than just drive; we may need to consider our entire support systems.
Changing the Way We Think About Driving
The evolution of vehicle technologies and the self-driving car is speeding up; we can’t stand idle thinking the advancements won’t impact us. Now is the time to think differently about how we drive, and specifically about how we drive as we age — both individually and as a society.
Many of the current and developing vehicle safety technologies offer tremendous safety benefits. As we think about staying in the driver’s seat for as long as possible, we must begin to view these technologies as enabling us to drive more safely. We need to think differently about the vehicles we purchase, lease, or rent — and make choices based on access to safety technologies. And we need to think differently about driving — the learning process will be continuous as we figure out how technology complements our safe driving skills to ensure greater safety over a lifetime.