Google’s Big Bet: Old People Will Love Self-Driving Cars – Vanity Fair
Google is in the beginnings of a Silicon Valley arms race over self-driving cars. The tech giant, with its $498 billion market capitalization, faces stiff competition in the space from stalwart automakers and upstarts like Tesla and Uber alike. But there’s one demographic the company is betting will love its self-driving cars: the aging population.
Some experts predict that the first people to use self-driving cars won’t be millennials, but baby-boomers. “For the first time in history, older people are going to be the lifestyle leaders of a new technology,” Joseph Coughlin, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab told Bloomberg. “Younger people may have had smartphones in their hands first, but it’s the 50-plus consumers who will be first with smart cars.”
Self-driving cars, though still in their prototype phase, might help prevent seniors from getting stranded. Tasks like going to the grocery store or the doctor are no small feat for the 43 million people in the U.S. who are now 65 or older, especially considering that 79 percent of those people live in rural or suburban areas.
Google has been testing a series of retrofitted Lexus S.U.V.s near its Mountain View headquarters, facing a series of federal and state safety regulatory hurdles along the way. Fully autonomous vehicles are still at least a few years away. (Just this week, a Google car was involved in the first accident deemed the fault of the car itself, not another driver.) The California D.M.V. is still working on regulations requiring self-driving cars to have a steering wheel and a licensed driver as a back-up plan, in case something happens. Google, however, thinks these requirements would actually make the cars less safe by enabling passengers to go rogue and override the autonomous system’s decisions.
Google isn’t the only tech company making a play for the aging population. Ride-hailing behemoth Uber has become a mobility option for seniors. Billionaire C.E.O. Travis Kalanick’s company has made a push for the aging demographic, releasing a promotional video that details how Uber is positioning itself as a viable transportation option for senior citizens.
Anecdotally, Uber drivers have already reported an uptick in the number of passengers they have who are seniors. One driver, Martha Voorhees, told Forbes that 40 percent of her clients are seniors. “They have smart phones, their grandchildren have loaded the app and they were taught how to use it,” Voorhees said. “Then from there, they teach others how to use it. It’s quite viral in the senior group.”
A San Francisco upstart called Lift Hero even markets itself as an “Uber for seniors”, letting seniors book rides online or over the phone.
Carmakers like Tesla have already introduced semi-autonomous models into the market. As Apple, Google, Uber, and other giants race to produce the first—and most appealing—fully autonomous model, the aging, baby-boomer generation makes for a logical, if slightly unexpected, target audience.