Mobility is an important issue for everyone. People want to be able to move around independently, which allows them to go about their daily activities (for example, going to work, shopping, going to medical appointments), to lead an active social life, or even to nurture a sense of freedom.
Yet, age-related changes can affect our physical and mental health. They can also affect our ability to walk, cycle, or drive a vehicle.
For many years, autonomous vehicles have been a futuristic dream. However, technological advancements indicate that it will be the reality of tomorrow. These road vehicles (for example, cars or buses) are equipped with an autonomous driving system that has the ability to drive without the intervention of a driver.
Could these autonomous vehicles improve mobility for older adults?
What research tells us
A recent systematic review provided an update on the state of knowledge of the factors that limit the mobility and well-being of older adults, as well as the potential of autonomous vehicles.(1)
This review highlights that older adults are a heterogeneous group. Their travel needs are very different and can also vary depending on life events (for example, retirement, deteriorating health, relocation, or the loss of a loved one).
The review reveals that the mobility of older adults is influenced by four main factors:
- Health factors: The inability or decline of physical, sensory, motor or cognitive skills necessary to walk, cycle, drive or use public transport services can limit mobility. For example, severe arthritis can hinder the use of technological interfaces. As they age, older adults may also fear being involved in an accident, whether as an occupant of a vehicle or as a pedestrian, and refuse to use taxis, public transport or even carpooling.
- Environmental factors: The built environment, including the roads and the vehicles that circulate on them, must be considered according to the needs of people with reduced mobility, for example low sidewalks or safe crosswalks at intersections.
- Economic factors: Declining income is an obstacle to mobility for the elderly, as fares for the use of transport can be high, despite the fact that a large part of the aging baby boom generation in many countries is richer and healthier than previous cohorts.
- Social factors: They refer to social ties, routines, or informal interactions. Some studies suggest that people who cannot drive tend to have less social contacts, and that many older adults prefer not to participate in community activities if they must depend on others for transportation.
Do autonomous vehicles meet the needs of older adults?
There is limited research evidence that examined the potential of autonomous vehicles, while considering the factors influencing the mobility of seniors. In addition, due to the heterogeneity of the elderly population, it is difficult to determine whether autonomous vehicles will meet the needs of older adults. Some older adults seem less receptive to technology and might not want to use autonomous vehicles (whether it has to be an autonomous car or bus). Some people use public transport to chat with the driver: the autonomous buses may not meet their need for social interaction due to the absence of a driver.
Autonomous vehicles can be integrated with existing public transport services, leveraging vehicle automation for a sustainable perspective. However, the types of autonomous vehicles will depend on consumer preferences: driverless buses, autonomous taxis for solo or shared passengers, with or without twinning of passengers according to their age, health and interests, fares advantageous.
The supply of autonomous vehicles must be in line with the built environment and road infrastructure. In addition, they must not compromise walking and cycling, which contribute to active aging and which offer opportunities for social participation.