Green Wheels: Self-Driving Seniors

I love the idea of self-driving cars. Believe it or not, though I've been writing this column for 28 years, I don't really like getting behind the wheel. Sure, it's a thrill to drive Ferraris and stuff like that, or to pilot antique cars like the Duesenberg I recently drove around Bridgeport, but all in all I'd just as soon be sitting in the back seat playing with an iEverything, just like my kids.

Which is why it's exciting that autonomous cars are gaining ground. One of the beneficiaries, besides kids who don't care about driving, is older people. They're jazzed in Japan, because the country — with hardly any immigration and really low birth rates — has a graying population. In fact, Japan has 23 percent of its population over 65 — that's the highest percentage among countries with more than a million people. It's the fastest-aging major economy, and 40 percent will be seniors by 2060.

"Seniors are often regarded as the victims of traffic accidents," Moritaka Yoshida, a Toyota safety officer, told Automotive News. "However, recently an increasing number of accidents are caused by senior drivers."

The U.S. isn't in the same boat with Japan, but it's also aging — 20 percent of the population will be over 65 in 2050 (up from 13 percent in 2010).

Google has logged millions of miles in self-driving Priuses, and automakers have been making announcements about their rollout plans. Toyota will have a system that avoids collisions in two years. GM claims it will have autonomous vehicles in 2020, the same year as Nissan. BMW says it will have a fully automated car by 2025. Others in the game include Audi, Ford, Mercedes, Volkswagen and Volvo.

Since 80 to 90 percent of accidents are caused by human error, taking our distracted selves out of the equation seems wise. Still, there are big hurdles before the self-driving car (rather than simply cars that know how to avoid accidents) are the status quo. The insurance liability concerns also loom large.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is working on coming up with standards for self-driving cars, and obviously that's needed. The agency is also urging states to regulate it — right now, California and Nevada allow autonomous cars on the roads (but with a human actually in the driver's seat).

Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety worries about "substituting computer errors for human errors." Any software would have to be double fail-safe. It can't, in effect, "drop a call" or freeze — the way our computers do now. Any car can look great in a demonstration — I saw an Audi do amazing things in a Las Vegas parking garage — but doing amazing things all day, every day? That's the big hurdle here.


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