I was recently in the market for a new car. A number of my friends purchased a Tesla so I decided to go for a test drive to see what all the hype is about. Out of curiosity, I asked the sales rep what segment of the population is buying Teslas. Besides environmentalists and techno geeks, the rep said senior citizens represent a large percentage of sales. I started thinking about this and realized this makes sense due to the self-driving features being introduced to the vehicles.
As an elder law attorney, I routinely handle matters where children are struggling with the issue of taking away the car keys from parents who should no longer be driving. Many seniors fiercely resist giving up the keys because transportation is inextricably associated with one’s autonomy, independence, and dignity. As a result, elderly individuals often continuing driving despite poor vision, impaired judgment, diminished reflexes, and memory loss.
A lot of these issues become less of a concern if the car drives itself. Destinations can be pre-programmed so the “driver” can’t get lost. Auto-pilot features also compensate for physical disabilities that might compromise one’s ability to operate a vehicle. The application of this technology extends to young adults with autism or developmental disabilities who might not be otherwise able to drive on their own, limiting employment and other opportunities.
As positive as this sounds, The self-driving automobile is not a utopian solution that will immediately offer a fleet of driverless “Ubers” chauffeuring the elderly and disabled. Self-driving technology requires a leap of faith to allow the automobile to navigate on its own. This is easier said than done. Check out the YouTube video of the 70-year-old grandma using the Tesla autopilot feature here.
Parenthetically, my wife, who is much younger than the 70-year-old grandma, had the same reaction during her test drive.
Nevertheless, emerging technology with self-driving automobiles is almost certain to enhance the quality of life for the elderly and disabled by preserving the independence and autonomy we thrive to retain. Not that long ago cell phones and the internet were considered science fiction. Both of these have changed the world our grandparents’ generation could never imagine. As we enter the new decade, I suspect the same will be said for self-driving automobiles. I am excited to see where this “road” leads (pun intended) and the profound impact it has on the most vulnerable members of the population.