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September 19, 2023

Autonomous Vehicle Transport Programs for Older Adults – Bane or Blessing?

Dinesh Napal (LLM, BA)

The PDF in which this article appears can be found at BIFOCAL Vol. 45, Issue 1. 


Advanced technology and artificial intelligence continue to play greater roles in our everyday lives. Whether it is your streaming service recommending you a new movie or TV show to watch, or your smartphone letting you know the best way to avoid traffic delays, there are elements of innovative technology in how we interact with others and the world around us. For older adults, some new technologies can present opportunities to enhance their quality of later life, while some aspects may prove difficult, impractical or inconvenient. Automated transport has emerged as one avenue in which innovative technology is positioned to potentially improve accessibility for older adults.

Autonomous vehicles can use sensors and other artificial intelligence systems to transport people on roads. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has established six levels of vehicular autonomy:

  • Level 0 – the human is driving and must be constantly supervising the automated support features, which are limited to providing warnings and momentary assistance
  • Level 1 – the human is driving and must be constantly supervising the automated support features, which can provide steering or brake/acceleration support to the driver
  • Level 2 – the human is driving and must be constantly supervising the automated support features, which can provide steering and brake/acceleration support to the driver
  • Level 3 – the human is not driving when the automated support features are engaged but must drive when required, and the features can drive the vehicle under limited conditions
  • Level 4 – the human is not driving when the automated support features are engaged and will not be required to take over, and the features can drive the vehicle under limited conditions
  • Level 5 – the human is not driving when the automated support features are engaged and will not be required to take over, and the features can drive the vehicle under all conditions

Currently, we are far from a level 5 automated vehicle – many still require human input or oversight – but there are some automated facilities or vehicles that are being incorporated into public transportation services.

What is the state-of-play with autonomous public transport?

Most accessible forms of transport services offered to older adults exist in the form of ridesharing or ridehailing smartphone applications (e.g. Uber or Lyft), which are typically available to all adults with access to the application. Other shared-use transport services such as public buses or accessible transport services are also available, such as MetroAccess, offered by the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which provides fully accessible transportation by shared van. Automated transport vehicles are increasingly considered as alternatives or additional options in the realm of services offered to improve accessibility, but many older adults remain skeptical.

In 2022, the Pew Research Center published a report which found that adults aged 50+ were more likely than adults aged 18-49 to find that widespread use of driverless cars would be bad for society. They were also more likely to favor additional safety precautions for driverless cars, and were less likely to ride in one. The concerns expressed by older adults in the Pew report are echoed in the findings of a 2021 AARP report, which found that many innovations in automated transport, while expanding transport options available to older adults, were being operated without a full understanding of the issues affecting older adults’ mobility and experience.

As AARP hasindicated, such technologies are currently either in operation or being trialed. Here are two key examples.

Case study 1: Valley wAVe (Sun City, Arizona)

In 2023, May Mobility Inc. launched a program with the local government of Sun City, Arizona and sponsored by AARP and Via, called Valley wAVe, specifically for older adults. It runs two autonomous Toyota Siennas which stop at 11 locations between7.00am to 5.00pm Monday to Friday, free-of-charge to eligible Sun City residents, who use a smartphone app or call to schedule a ride. The cars take riders directly to their destination unless other passengers need to be picked up, and one of the two vehicles has an ADA-accessible ramp. There is still a person behind the wheel to answer questions or support passengers who require assistance.

Some older adults in the Sun City area have responded positively, emphasizing the novelty of the advanced technology and how that may attract older users because of its convenience. The co-founder and chief executive of May Mobility, Dr. Edwin Olson, also emphasized both the company’s commitment to “providing safe, reliable transportation” as people age, and the fact that older adults can “gain greater access to mobility with autonomous vehicle technology.”

It is essential to take a critical lens to such technology. As previously stated, vehicles should be designed with a multitude of potential health, mobility and wellbeing factors in mind when it comes to older people. Consequently, safe and reliable transportation needs to account for specific issues, particularly in predominantly older communities, such as the peak times of day during which older people may want to use such services, and how in-demand these may be. It will be important to monitor the use of Valley wAVe vehicles, including the rate at which they are reserved for rides, how effective they are at transporting older adults in a timely manner, and how the service may contend with health or wellbeing emergencies.

Case study 2: Office of Mobility Innovation pilot (Detroit, Michigan)

The Office of Mobility Innovation (OMI) in Detroit, Michigan is currently running a $2.5 million pilot program with May Mobility Inc. on autonomous vehicles specifically designed for older adults and adults with disabilities. The program is separate from the existing public transport and paratransit service in Detroit, and consists of three SAE Level 3 ADA-compliant hybrid shuttles operating 50 hours across 7 days for 100 participants, which will have a driver behind the wheel. Users will be able to book rides through a smartphone application, on the program website, or over the phone. It will be operated in two zones, one covering central neighborhoods north of Downtown Detroit, and the other covering southeast neighborhoods between Detroit River and Gratiot Avenue, which have been identified as areas with a high concentration of adults aged 65 or over, living in poverty with less access to a car.

The OMI chief, Tim Slusser, described how the pilot program will “allow the city to further understand how these types of solutions can better address residents’ needs.” Again, monitoring such programs is crucial to understanding whether these technologies can really address mobility needs for older adults, or whether they present new barriers or exacerbate existing difficulties. With the Detroit pilot specifically, it will be important to observe and respond to how intersecting issues around poverty, discrimination against older adults, and reduced transport options are affected by advanced technology.

Conclusions and Suggestions

Proponents of autonomous vehicles being more involved in the lives of older adults believe in the benefits of the potential increased mobility, convenience, and independence that such technologies can offer. However, critiques of such services persist when it comes to whether these technologies are actually designed with the lived experience and insights of older adults, particularly when evidence exists to show how apprehensive many already are. Further monitoring of the existing and piloted programs is essential in understanding more about how these services can affect older people living in metropolitan areas. More research is needed around why older people may express apprehension, fear, or skepticism toward advanced automated transport, so that programs can work toward addressing and demystifying some of the potential of their services.

Ultimately, while the ambitions of such programs and initiatives are noble, the worries and lived experiences of older adults are significant. These need to be appropriately addressed, especially as older adults, particularly those living in poverty, may rely on public transportation services more often to get around. Involving older adults, whether through direct engagement or focus groups, or through advocacy organizations, in the design and planning process of such services, will be increasingly important as further pilot initiatives get underway. In a future where interacting with Level 5 vehicles may be a reality, older people should feel as comfortable as anyone else using these services to get around and live fulfilling lives.

    Dinesh Napal (LLM, BA)

    American University Washington College of Law 2024

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