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Baby boomers wary of self-driving cars despite added safety

Google has been testing this two-seater prototype of

Google has been testing this two-seater prototype of a self-driving car. Photo Credit: TNS / LiPo Ching

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. One thing she isn’t likely to consider is a self-driving vehicle. “It’s difficult enough for people to manage the cars that they drive themselves,” said Buchanan, who lives in Los Angeles.

Buchanan’s attitude is in line with new research that finds most older adults are unwilling to adopt technologies paving the road toward autonomous vehicles. Many fear that features such as parking-assist, which negotiates a vehicle into a parking space by itself, makes drivers too reliant on technology. Just 31 percent of drivers ages 50 to 69 say they would purchase a self-driving car, even if it was the same price as a regular car, according to a recent study from The Hartford insurance company and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab.

The first fully automated vehicles aren’t expected to be on sale until 2020, but many of the technologies already exist in most modern cars. Billed as safety features or collision prevention, they include blind-spot monitors that detect other vehicles and alert the driver, 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 check and quickly react to surrounding traffic, Olshevsky said. Blind spot monitors and backup cameras are the technologies seniors are most willing to adopt, according to the Hartford study.

Beneficial as these aids are, especially for aging drivers, studies show they are unwilling to pay for them. For all consumers, price is the most important consideration in 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 account for the largest share 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. Features that are building blocks toward autonomous driving rank fourth.

Car buyers often don’t understand how to operate the 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, a marketing associate professor at San Diego State University.

To overcome boomers’ reluctance, 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 who 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. “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.

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. Frankie James, managing director of GM’s Advanced Technology Silicon Valley Office, said, “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 another big step this year when it introduces its Super Cruise system on its all-new Cadillac CT6 sedan. The technology will allow drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel and their foot off the pedals during highway driving. “Think about what car culture means to the baby boomers,” said Sheryl Connelly, in-house futurist for Ford Motor Co. “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, “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, Connelly said, “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.’”

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