Age and Autonomous Cars

 

The autonomous car may be diffusing itself into the hearts and minds of Baby Boomers, even before it makes its first, mass-market debut.

In a poll done by Pew Research in 2014,

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there was no age-divide when respondents were asked about their willingness to ride in an autonomous car. Fifty-two (52) percent of those 18-29 agreed, 50 percent of those ages 30-49, 48 percent of those ages 50 to 64, and 45 percent of those age 65 and older. The associate director of research, Aaron Smith at Pew commented, “We didn’t highlight the age findings because there weren’t any real generational differences to speak of.”

DIFFUSION OF INNOVATION AND AGE GROUPS

This is a very unusual finding. Traditionally “diffusion of innovation” studies find that younger age people are more likely to be early adopters. The literature lists myriad reasons but it is generally held that younger people are more exposed to more messages and information,  find it easier to be at “risk” with new innovations, and  enjoy “bragging rights” from being first (a vital dimension for social media).

Cell phones, GPS navigation, and social media use are recent examples of innovations that  began with young people and then trickled up to older cohorts. Since  24% of the US population is 18 or younger, and another 36% are ages 18 to 44 (total <44= 60%)  a really big innovation needs to filter up to the other 40 percent.

BOTH ENDS OF THE AGE SPECTRUM

The autonomous car might be the innovation that captures both ends of the age spectrum.  For younger users, it holds numerous advantages: It promises mobility for teens and young adults without the hassle and costs of getting a license and owning a car. People under 25 have difficulty renting cars because they do not have a driving record. Oft times they live at home, on campuses, or in urban areas where parking is limited and expensive. The autonomous car could remove these hassles for young people, and let them focus on their schooling, or jobs…and even getting to work or school if they do not own a car.

For older people at the other end of the age spectrum, the autonomous car may be the orange “life preserver” we provide to keep them healthy and actively engaged. In earlier blogs we have written about the need for seniors to keep healthy and connected. When they give up driving older people report feeling isolated and helpless, particularly if they are beyond the reach of public transportation and affordable taxi services. This is a problem of proportion, since nearly 70% of the Baby Boomers in the US have settled in far-flung suburbs served primarily, and sometimes exclusively, by personal household vehicles. The suburbs might have been a fine place to live when they were young and raising families, but they will be the first cohort to test “aging-in-place” when “place” is  car-dependent suburbia.

THE UNIMAGINED…DIFFUSES!

People notoriously underestimate the role of new technology…until it well, just happens. Take, for example, the transition from the corded phone, the one with a curlicue cord plugged in at the wall, to the cordless one. If you had surveyed 35 years ago, and asked people their opinion about a “phone you could take from room to room”…they would have looked puzzled. And next, they would ask why they needed one and they could possibly do with it.

It is unusual, and exciting, that people intuitively understand the need for a futuristic,  autonomous car. The explanation goes something like this: “Imagine a car that you could take from place to place even if you are not feeling too well today, not quite up to driving, or you are simply too old, or too young, to have a full driver’s license.”