When my grandparents visited last June, Chris and I took them over to the coast for a day of hiking and dining. The drive back was pleasant with Chris dozing in the front seat and my grandparents and I lightly chatting about the beautiful scenery. About 45 minutes into the trip, I had just driven over a small hill when I realized the cars in front of me were completely stopped. I slammed on my breaks, skidding just short of the bumper in front of me. We all braced for impact as the car behind us swerved into the shoulder, whizzing past us on the right. A second later, the car behind them was forced into oncoming traffic, its attached boat swinging precariously by my window. Chris, I noticed, was suddenly awake.
By some miracle, there was no collision. As traffic tentatively started moving again, we saw that the driver that had caused the sudden stop was an older man who had turned left into a lonely mart parking lot. Adrenaline still running high, my grandpa wondered if the man even noticed what had almost happened behind him. He was thankful, he continued, that all the drivers behind him were young and alert enough to respond quickly.
I was remembering that experience Saturday as Chris and I took my parents on the coastal tour. It’s easy to criticize older drivers who should have given up their keys years ago. Their slow reaction times and oblivious actions can certainly be frustrating. Yet giving up the keys is giving up freedom and independence. My 83-year-old grandpa who so easily criticized the lead driver is amazingly fit and sharp for his age. But with all the cross country traveling he does on his motorcycle and in his car, I am sure he will be loathe to relinquish the keys when that day comes. And I get it. I still remember the feeling of pure bliss on my first licensed solo drive.
How difficult it will be, I thought to myself, when I have to watch my parents give up their keys. But what if my parents never have to face that shameful moment when the caregiver takes the keys? What if cars reliably self-drive? And in swoops Google.
Rather than introducing its fully automatic car as a solution for cyborg texter-drivers, Google has unveiled their car with a unique driver, er, passenger. Steve Mahan, who has lost 95% of his vision, is a clear beneficiary of self-driving auto technologies. On the highly controlled test drive, we caught a glance into the miraculously regular life Mahan could achieve with independent smart transit.
In the past, I’ve been skeptical about the feasibility of self-driving technologies. I doubted we would anytime soon have the social or physical infrastructure to deal with such a fundamental transportation advancement. Anyway, I figured they’d be too expensive and would likely suffer the electric car fate of overwhelming trepidation with the new. My error was that I imagined self-driving cars to be a technology for people already capable of driving. The difference fully auto cars could make in the lives of those dependent on public transit or caregivers could be overwhelming.
Assuming the technology is safe (a clearly steep assumption), self-driving cars would seem to be only a positive tool for elders and their caregivers. I would hope, however, that it wouldn’t just mean yet another mechanism for age segregation and abandonment of elders. When I was in high school, I spent considerable time volunteering in a local retirement home and when I turned 18, I worked as a residential aide at an assisted living facility until leaving for college. I’ve seen first hand the loneliness of so many retirement homes. Families rarely visit or call and anyone under fifty who’s not an employee rarely walks through the doors. Would independent transportation for elders allow us to deepen our forget, our neglect?
What would it take for you to get behind the wheel of an invisible computer engine? Would you encourage your parents or other elders you care for to hand over the keys to the care of their car? Maybe in the near future, we won’t have to make elders choose between risking road safety or abandoning independence. Maybe they’ll have self-driving cars to maintain their freedom.