FutureStructure

Baby Boomers Apprehensive of Self-Driving Vehicles

According to a recent survey, Baby Boomers are concerned about how autonomous vehicles would respond to an unexpected road hazard.

by Susan Carpenter, The Orange County Register / January 7, 2016
Driverless cars like this one could be tested in a new University of Michigan smart city. Steve Jurvetson licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

(TNS) -- Nancy Buchanan has no intention of ever buying another car. At age 69, she plans to switch to public transit or a ride-hailing service once her 2010 Honda Fit wears out or she becomes too frail to drive — whichever comes first.

One thing she isn’t likely to even consider is an autonomous, or self-driving, vehicle.

“It’s difficult enough for people to manage the cars that they drive themselves,” said Buchanan, who lives in Los Angeles. “There could be some things that would go wrong that could be disastrous with a self-driving car. What happens if there’s an earthquake? What happens if there’s something unexpected?”

Buchanan’s attitude is in line with new research showing that a majority of older adults are unwilling to adopt technologies paving the road toward self-driving vehicles. Many fear that features such as parking-assist, which negotiates a vehicle into a parking space by itself, and adaptive cruise control, which automatically modifies a vehicle’s speed based on the speed of the car it is following, make drivers too reliant on technology.

Just 31 percent of drivers ages 50 to 69 say they will purchase a self-driving car, even if it is the same price as a “regular” car, according to a recent study from The Hartford insurance company and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab.

Generation Y (ages 22 to 35) has the highest preference for cars that could perform all driving functions on their own, followed by Generation X (ages 36 to 50) and, lastly, baby boomers, according to customer research firm J.D. Power.

While self-driving cars are not available to consumers yet — the first fully automated vehicles aren’t expected to be on sale until 2020 — many of the technologies already exist in most modern cars.

Billed as safety features or collision protection, those technologies include blind-spot monitors that detect other vehicles and alert the driver, lane-keeping assist features that detect when a driver is about to unintentionally leave a traffic lane and can automatically correct course, and automatic braking systems that sense an imminent collision and apply the brakes without driver input.

“These technologies can work really nicely with some of the normal changes that come with aging,” said Jodi Olshevsky, leading gerontologist with The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence which collaborated with MIT AgeLab on the Vehicle Technology Adoption Among Mature Drivers study.

As drivers age, they often experience reduced strength, reflexes and coordination, making it difficult to turn a neck and check surrounding traffic, Olshevsky said. For drivers experiencing such problems, blind-spot and lane-departure warnings, as well as rear-view cameras, are especially valuable because they can see on the driver’s behalf.

Blind spot monitors and back-up cameras are the technologies seniors are most willing to adopt, according to the Hartford study.

Beneficial as these technologies are, especially for aging drivers, additional studies show drivers are unwilling to pay for them.

Price is the most important consideration for adopting any automotive technology, according to J.D. Power, with baby boomers being the most price sensitive of all age groups. They are willing to spend, on average, $2,416 for in-car technology compared with $3,703 for millennials.

That’s a concern for automakers since baby boomers make up the majority of auto purchases in the U.S.: 37.1 percent.

In order of priority, car buyers are most concerned about quality, purchase price and fuel efficiency, according to the automotive research firm Strategy Analytics. Safety features that are building blocks toward autonomous driving rank fourth.

And while safety technologies are easy to use once drivers become familiar with them, new car buyers often don’t understand how to operate the very systems that could help their driving and reduce their likelihood of collisions.

“The average consumer when it comes to technology in general and car technology in particular is clueless,” said Claudiu Dimofte, associate professor of marketing at San Diego State University. “It’s not teens that buy these cars but their parents, the older folks, the kind of consumer that is pretty much impaired when it comes to judging and evaluating car technology.”

To overcome boomers’ reticence, a handful of manufacturers are following the example set by Apple.

In 2014, General Motors launched Connection Centers in many of its dealer showrooms to help educate consumers on how to use the technology in its vehicles. An automotive version of the Apple Genius Bar, the Connection Centers are staffed with Certified Technology Experts that explain the vehicles’ features before new car buyers drive away from the lot. BMW also employs a staff of so-called geniuses for the same purpose.

Another barrier to the acceptance of auto-driving features: trust.

“If a system is providing false positives or negatives, that is going to introduce doubt into the user’s mind,” Kristin Kolodge, executive director of Human Machine Interface and Driver Interaction for J.D. Power, said during the Connected Car Expo in L.A. in November. “Trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair; so for us to be able to maintain the pathway toward self-driving vehicles, we have to make sure we keep trust at the heart of design.”

Trust is already an issue.

“My concern is I’m willing to swipe a phone at the Starbucks to pay for my latte, but I’m not willing to sit in a car at 70 miles per hour trusting software that doesn’t even have to get hacked just to screw up,” said Doug Wichert, 65. “You can rebuild your credit. You can rebuild your rib cage, but I don’t want to go there yet.”

Still, Wichert foresees a time when he may not have a choice between a so-called regular car and one that drives itself.

“It’s a matter of when the cars are on the lot and that’s what you can buy,” Wichert said. “That’s what you’ll buy.”

That day is fast approaching. Audi, Google, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla are among the manufacturers testing autonomous cars on public roads with an eye toward selling fully autonomous vehicles to U.S. consumers within four years.

“Everybody will benefit from autonomy, but certain groups it will make an absolute world of difference,” said Frankie James, managing director of General Motors’ Advanced Technology Silicon Valley Office.

“We know the population is aging, and there’s a lot of people getting into that older demographic. A lot of what we’re doing to go into autonomy is going to make retaining your independence or mobility, or gaining your mobility, open to a lot of people.”

General Motors, whose vehicles already incorporate semi-autonomous features, will take a big step forward this year when it introduces a system on its all-new Cadillac CT6 sedan called Super Cruise. The technology will allow drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel and their foot off the pedals during highway driving.

“As Americans, we are blessed with this idea of open highways, the wind in our hair, pedal to the metal, so for some people, they can’t imagine giving that up because driving brings them a lot of joy,” said Sheryl Connelly, in-house futurist for Ford Motor Co. “Think about what car culture means to the baby boomers. When they got their first car, it was a rite of passage. It was a really important milestone in their lives. The car stood for freedom and independence. It was an important status symbol.”

Despite their reluctance to embrace autonomous driving technologies, “The solid business case for autonomous driving is the baby boomers,” Connelly said. “It’s the baby boomers who love their cars and who at 69 years of age still have lots of driving years ahead of them, but there might come a moment in the future when their beloved cars are no longer available to them because their family feels they’ve gotten to an age that it’s not prudent or safe.

“They’re the first customers who will be lining up and saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute. If I take an autonomous vehicle, I can still have my own car, I can still live and age in place. I don’t need to move to assisted living.’”

©2016 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.