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The Future of Driverless Cars Is Now

Autonomous vehicles could be a game changer for those with mobility issues

By Craig Miller

In a series of conversations between film director Martin Scorcese, 78, and the famously acerbic humorist Fran Lebowitz, in the Netflix series "Pretend It's a City," somehow the subject of self-driving cars came up.

The knee-jerk response from the 70-year-old queen of New York curmudgeons: "Who wanted this?" 

older residents with driverless car Optimus Ride, autonomous vehicles, mobility, Next Avenue
Engineers from Optimus Ride (at right) recruited a group of residents to test the self-driving ride service at Paradise Valley Estates in Fairfield, Calif.  |  Credit: courtesy of Optimus Ride

It's one of the central questions to arise around the emerging technology. Can we trust it?

Like objects in your side-view mirror, driverless cars or autonomous vehicles (AVs), as they're known in the industry, are closer than they appear. Instead of rolling up to your door as a fait accompli, the technology is arriving in dribs and drabs.

New cars already have some autonomous features, such as automatic braking when they detect obstacles, adaptive cruise control to maintain safe intervals on the road and even the ability to back out of tight parking spaces on their own.

Even the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated adoption and development of AVs as an ideal vehicle for "no-contact" deliveries of everything from prescriptions to pizza.

Game Changer

But more than that, passenger AVs could be a major game changer for older people faced with declining mobility. Ever since Henry Ford, automobiles have supercharged Americans' sense of independence.

"Mobility is the very glue — if you will — that holds all those little things that we call life, together."

"Mobility is the very glue — if you will — that holds all those little things that we call life, together," says Joe Coughlin, who heads the AgeLab at MIT and is a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging.

An Agelab study found consumers across the age spectrum generally favorable toward using forms of artificial intelligence like AVs, but with more enthusiasm among male respondents and those with more advanced knowledge of the technology.

Ignacio Alvarez, a former BMW engineer, now working on the Mobileye AV initiative at Intel Labs, says AVs will "fundamentally change" the way we live and work. He sees the car becoming a "transitional space" where, liberated from driving chores, occupants' time on the road becomes more productive. It's "going to basically change everything we've known in the history of the automobile," Alvarez predicts.

Not all at once, though.

"The vehicle that takes you from Harvard Square to Times Square in a snowstorm is probably fifteen years away," says Ryan Chin, co-founder of Optimus Ride, a pioneer in passenger-oriented autonomous vehicles. "It's not gonna be: you wake up one day and autonomous vehicles will be everywhere and you flip a switch and all of a sudden the vehicle will drive itself anywhere."

The company's CEO, Sean Harrington, agrees. "Where we see AVs getting adopted first is where there are short trips concentrated around specific hubs of activity," he says.

Paradise on Wheels

Optimus Ride currently has more than 40 self-driving electric cars doing limited duties around the country. When the company's first driverless shuttles began whirring around Paradise Valley Estates in Fairfield, Calif., residents could be forgiven a little skepticism. But the wheeled robots are already winning over residents, some in their 90s.

driverless cars deliver meals, autonomous vehicles, mobility, Next Avenue
When COVID-19 precautions suspended communal dining at Paradise Valley Estates, autonomous electric cars were harnessed for door-to-door meal delivery  |  Credit: courtesy of Optimus Ride

Paradise Valley is a "continuum of care" community that runs the gamut from independent living to skilled nursing for more than 500 residents. Still in their testing phase with Optimus Ride engineers onboard, the Estates' three all-electric driverless cars have been deployed delivering meals to residents, after pandemic precautions forced the communal dining rooms to shut down.

"Eventually we want to be a hundred percent autonomous," says Jeff Rausis, who directs marketing and technology for Paradise Valley.

Once mapping and testing is complete, completely autonomous vehicles will shuttle residents around the 78-acre campus and perhaps beyond. Eventually, after AVs become more mainstream, they'll likely be used there for shopping errands and medical appointments.

"It's a very car-driven society," says Rausis, the pun most likely subconscious. "We're not big on public transportation, especially outside of an urban environment."

Once widely available, though, AVs have the potential to reopen the world to people of all ages. "This would return them to their youth," says Rausis, "they just have to hop in their car and go, whenever and wherever they want."


But Are They Safe?

Harrington says a version of that dream is not a major stretch beyond the limited scope of his company's current service at Paradise Valley.

"Extending out from the campus to a set of destinations that are known as highly trafficked and recurring, but still reasonably short and in a constrained environment around that hub, is absolutely doable in the near term," he projects.

"The Eureka moment for me is just people's expression on their faces when they actually take their first autonomous ride."

Despite a few well-publicized mishaps involving self-driving cars in the testing phase, most experts agree that autonomous cars will be safer than those with human drivers.

Numerous studies have concluded that human error is at the root of the overwhelming majority of traffic accidents. And while autonomous-vehicle technology is still in development, computers can generally be counted on not to get distracted or drive under the influence, two main causes of accidents.

"The Eureka moment for me is just people's expression on their faces when they actually take their first autonomous ride," says Chin. "After the third ride, they stop thinking about it. They don't think of the car as an autonomous vehicle. They start pulling out their smartphones and texting their grandkids."

Wide-Open Road

Investors would appear to be enthusiastic, as well.

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A thank-you gift from a Paradise Valley Estates resident after self-driving shuttles were diverted to meal-delivery duty  |  Credit: courtesy of Optimus Ride

Tech giants from Apple to Tesla all have major stakes in AVs. Apple has announced plans to have driverless cars on the road by 2024. Ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber are rolling inexorably toward driverless cars.

By some estimates, AVs could well be a $2 trillion market worldwide, by 2030.

Rausis compares initial reticence toward AVs to the internal website at Paradise Valley Estates, which some residents there strongly resisted at first. He says once the website became a necessity for ordering meals and transport services, people warmed up to it.

"I think it'll be the same thing for these vehicles," Rausis predicts. "We have residents here in their nineties who are excited about the autonomous vehicles. So it's partly personality and partly generational."

Even Fran Lebowitz is warming to the idea, after reflecting on the many white-knuckle cab rides she's taken with human drivers.

"People say that we should be scared to be in driverless cars," she told Scorcese. "And I thought of all the times I've been scared to be in a car with a driver."

Photograph of Craig Miller
Craig Miller is a veteran journalist based in the northern Catskills of New York. His reporting is focused on climate science and policy, energy and the environment. In 2008 Miller launched and edited the award-winning Climate Watch multimedia initiative for KQED in San Francisco, where he remained a science editor until August of 2019. He’s also a proud member of his local volunteer fire department.
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