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Why Boomers Will Push for Self-Driving Cars

Ford's resident futurist links the trend to aging

Sheryl Connelly is a futurist for Ford Motor Co., scanning the world for trends that will change the way we live and drive. She has been described as the Faith Popcorn of the auto industry and credited with keeping her company producing the right types of vehicles at just the right time.

The big trend happening before our eyes, she says, is the rise in the number of older people across the globe, which has major implications for getting around. “That’s ‘Trends 101,’” says Connelly, who studied finance before earning an MBA and a law degree.

For many who are elderly now, being able to drive is essential to remaining home and maintaining independence. Their kids — the boomers who are causing the global demographic shift — don’t relish having to take away the car keys. Nor do they want the keys taken from them in the future. “They’re not likely to give up their autonomy and independence easily,” Connelly notes.

So Ford, along with other car companies, has put millions of dollars and years of research into figuring out how to keep current and future populations of elderly people driving safely. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the risk of being hurt or killed in a car accident rises with age, and as the over-65 population rises, the problem will get worse. But t high-tech features that auto companies are developing counter physical and mental changes that can happen with aging.

Designed For Elderly And Working For Everyone

Since many of Ford’s engineers are young, to build their empathy as they build cars, these pros sometimes wear a Third Age Suit, a head-to-toe coverall that simulates what it’s like to be 60, 70 or 80.

The risk of being hurt or killed in a car accident rises with age, and as the over-65 population rises, the problem will get worse.

“It comes with glasses to mimic the effects of glaucoma, gloves that make you lose sensitivity and dexterity and braces around the neck, knees and elbow — you calibrate the tension and feel the restricted movement that comes with aging,” Connelly says. “Medical science tells us that aging brings slower response time, a limited range of motion and impaired vision. The suit tells us what that experience is like.”

Much of what automakers have already developed is being marketed for convenience. As with so many things meant to help the elderly, these solutions use universal design principles that help everyone.

Now, cars may come with voice-activation systems that let drivers keep their hands on the steering wheel; cameras to see behind the bumper; cross-traffic and blind-spot alerts or a steering wheel that vibrates if a driver crosses a lane. There are cars with parallel parking skills, laser headlights for optimal visibility and even sensors to measure if a parking slot is big enough for your vehicle before the car steers itself  in to it.

“These sensors and technology are all steps to get us closer to autonomous vehicles,” Connelly says. “Right now, all of the technology exists to make self-driving cars.”

Glimpses Into The Future

Advances are coming rapidly. There’s a 32-acre area at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, dubbed “M City,” for testing vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle–to-infrastructure communication. Toyota has created a department meant to unify all the different connected-car technologies; connected cars send electronic signals to each other and to objects around them to prevent crashes and maintain traffic flow, all part of the Internet of Things.

And yet, we’re years away from having autonomous cars on the road, since it takes more than technology alone to make such cars acceptable and accepted.

There’s the huge hurdle of hacking, recently outlined in an excellent Washington Post article. That, says Connelly, is the biggest obstacle. “We have to make sure people have security and confidence,” she notes.

Then there are issues of insurance, liability laws and urban planning — who sets up the grid and which cars are allowed on it? Who is responsible when an autonomous car gets in an accident?

And then there are people’s values, attitudes and behavior.

Connelly is 47 and helps care for her 81-year-old mom. So she observes how her mother gets into the car. “She shuffles in backward, leading with her bottom. Once she sits, she turns to face the steering wheel. I lead with my right foot,” Connelly says.

Understanding that difference already led to a change in Ford’s car design. “Years ago, we lowered the lift of our vehicles so you don’t have to lift your legs as high to get in, and we added telescopic steering wheels and adjustable pedals so it’s easier to swing your legs in,” Connelly says.

So while this futurist looks ahead and envisions a Minority Report-style of mega-cities with grid systems where drivers can enter and then switch to hands-free mode, she also looks with the eyes of a realist at her mom when pondering what will happen soon.

“A lot of people think we’ll end up with self-driving cars because kids today don’t want to drive,” Connelly says. “But I think the interest of someone who’s 85 and someone who’s 18 will come together. The push will be: How do you let the oldest members of society hold on to the dignity, freedom, autonomy and independence that comes from driving your own vehicle?” Connelly says.

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