By Karen Adams, VP of Market Intelligence
Self-driving or autonomous vehicles, which could extend independence for older people beyond when they might otherwise need to stop driving, could offer a great deal of convenience to both residents and community operators. They could also potentially reduce or eliminate the need for parking that is proximate to housing on campuses, thereby increasing green space. Many of us in the senior living field have watched their progress for some time, wondering just how soon we may be able to take advantage of these benefits.
A current check on the progress of autonomous vehicles provides a number of consistent messages, but their availability to the general consumer is not one of them. However, a consensus exists around two things.
First, all past expectations about when they will be on the roads have been continually pushed back. We may still be a decade or more away from the dream of individual ownership of vehicles that can be summoned when needed; will do all the work and take all of the responsibility while we kick back and enjoy the ride; and can be sent away when done and until we need it again. Even when autonomous vehicles do become available, gaining consumer acceptance and achieving market-friendly pricing will likely add more time to reach general use.
Second, the rate of investment and the number of significant participants engaged in the development process strongly indicate that there will be autonomous vehicles. The only question is when.
Autonomous vehicles first have to log millions of miles to support their artificial intelligence (AI) learning – something that does not sound terribly daunting given that vehicles today are increasingly incorporating autonomous characteristics, such as self-parking and lane guidance, and some are reporting extensive data back to their manufacturers already. However, vehicles’ ability to respond to the unexpected (a sudden lane change, U-turn or unsignaled left turn) is lagging behind predictions.
Autonomous vehicles are being tested in a number of cities, including Phoenix/Scottsdale, San Jose and San Francisco. Driverless shuttles are also being used in The Villages retirement community in Florida where they can make continuous rounds throughout its 32 square miles to the estimated 100 dining venues, 96 recreational centers, 100 tennis courts, 200 pickleball courts and however many golf courses exist among the 693 holes in the community. They continue to have safety attendants on board, though.
The Villages has the scale to be an attractive pilot community, as it is a large area where maximum speeds of 25 mph are maintained throughout and the driving environment is relatively simple. Voyage, the provider for The Villages, may be about to launch off-campus service, too.
All of this raises the question of whether there are ways to achieve some of the advantages of driverless cars in advance of their full entry into the market. This can be done by using on-demand ride services and rental vehicles, a model already commonly used by New Yorkers. However, it would require a change in consumers’ perceptions toward owning a vehicle, which is not a small task.
We know little about trip patterns (average lengths, and the distribution between short trips that cannot be efficiently provided by on-demand services and those that are longer), or how transportation needs change as driving becomes more difficult or dangerous (do longer trips diminish?). Can on-demand services accommodate a higher percentage of total travel needs? The degree to which people might continue to use delivery services they started during the pandemic, such as Instacart, also can change trip needs and eliminate many short-distance trips.
Our society still places a very high value on the owned and private automobile, and it remains a symbol of independence. Are there ways to reduce dependence on them and thereby extend independence and reduce demands on the land for parking?
For residents, the owned automobile is not without costs, of course. Would forgoing maintenance and insurance costs offset a great many on-demand trips?
Both Uber and Lyft have developed partnerships with third-party companies that want to bring ridesharing to their senior customers, providing dashboards that allow others to arrange rides. In short, both Uber and Lyft have programs that eliminate the need for seniors to make their own reservation through a smartphone.
Will autonomous vehicles be gracing our campuses in five years? Probably not. Nonetheless, on-demand services and the use of apps would likely benefit both the residents and the community; and when autonomous vehicles do hit the market, we will be prepared.
For more articles from Love & Company pertaining to trends affecting the senior living field, click here.