Tuesday 25 July 2017

Google looks to OAP market for self-driving cars

Google's two-seater prototype of a driverless car.
Google's two-seater prototype of a driverless car.

Dana Hull

Google thinks self-driving cars could be a hit with pensioners.

Mobility needs - getting to the doctor or shops or seeing family - has become paramount for seniors, especially with many living in suburbs and rural areas.

"For the first time in history, older people are going to be the lifestyle leaders of a new technology," said Joseph Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab.

"Younger people may have had smartphones in their hands first, but it's the 50-plus consumers who will be first with smart cars."

"A fully self-driving car has the potential to have a huge impact," said John Krafcik, chief executive officer of Google's Self-Driving Car Project. "Mobility should be open to the millions around the world who don't have the privilege of holding a driver's licence."

Ford also sees autonomy "as a way to strategically address an aging population", said Sheryl Connelly, the company's in-house futurist. To help design vehicles for the elderly, engineers and designers wear a "third age suit" with glasses that impair vision and gloves to reduce finger control and strength.

In Japan, Toyota is racing to bring autonomous cars to market, partly because elderly drivers disproportionately cause and are injured in traffic accidents. Some of this work is in the US, where the company hired Gill Pratt - former program manager at the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency and head of DARPA's Robotics Challenge - to lead the Toyota Research Institute.

The company is spending almost €1bn on artificial intelligence and robotics technology to eliminate driver errors and reduce traffic fatalities.

"We often talk about autonomy as if the goal is just to create autonomy in machines," Pratt said last year. The focus is more on people having "the ability to decide for themselves where they want to move, when they want to move," regardless of limits imposed by age or illness.

Fully self-driving cars are still years off, however. Car manufacturers and technology companies are using artificial intelligence to help teach them not just to avoid collisions and read traffic signs but also to respond to different types and needs of passengers. Older people, for example, might have several medical appointments and want to tell the car to take them to a specific doctor.

Engineers at Google are evaluating ways drivers can interact with cars, including by giving voice commands, according to spokesman Johnny Luu. The vehicles currently give verbal warnings about their intended path, including lane changes, he said. The small white robot cars Google is testing seat two passengers. (Bloomberg)

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