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In the near future, autonomous cars could help travelers “fly through” the standstill road traffic encountered at major airports. These vehicles can transform the dangerous, congested roadways for passenger pick-ups and drop-offs.
Today, most tests of autonomous vehicles are on city streets. But, Uber, which is testing cars in Pittsburgh, PA says it hopes to drive to the airport within months.
Airports have been inching towards autonomous vehicles for sometime. At least twelve U.S. airports use some type of automated train to connect between terminals, and, occasionally, to outside transport. Since 2011, Heathrow Airport (UK) has been operating pod vehicles they call “autonomous cars” but they glide on a fixed closed track, not the open streets.
On the inner roadways of airports, autonomous vehicles could replace the clutter of long-distance shuttles, limousines, taxis, etc. In the near future, autonomous vehicles would circle the terminals but then travel to perimeter zones served with rental cars, mass transit and parking. In the distant future, they would connect with longer-distance autonomous vehicles.
The airport is a likely place to begin such innovation as civil aviation is operated by private companies, but under the auspices and safety rules of a federal agency, the FAA. The public diffusion of autonomous cars may require a similar arrangement: close federal regulation of public road space so that passenger trips are safe, secure, and efficient (see blog http://aginginsuburbia.com/will-autonomous-vehicles-fly/)
REDUCE CONGESTION & IMPROVE AIR QUALITY
Airport authorities have a critical need to reduce congestion at the curb. While the number of passengers flying on airlines has grown, the road network around them has not. At LAX, for example, there is an annual volume of around 90,000 vehicles. A recent article notes that it can take drivers in Los Angeles up to 45 minutes to loop the 1.3 miles around the terminals. Meanwhile, similar delays are encountered at LaGuardia, Washington D.C. airports, and O’Hare.
Autonomous car and bus shuttles bring advantages: they could circle airports predictably, reduce the number of vehicle trips in and out of the airport, and speed up traffic flow. In addition to saving travelers time, they will make a significant improvement to air quality, particularly since most of the travel at the airport involves short distances and frequent stops. The wind-driven hot exhaust vapor from cars and trucks is a source of considerable pollution, and autonomous vehicle operations (preferably electric ones) would help airports green up, and reduce carbon monoxide emissions.
IMPROVE TRAVELER EXPERIENCE
The autonomous car will also make airports safer for their customers, the pedestrians. Pedestrians could walk across lanes of traffic (presumably at a light or crosswalk) knowing that the oncoming vehicles would stop. Significantly, there would be fewer vehicles overall, since bus and taxi services could be consolidated.
Most importantly, new autonomous vehicles could help airport concessions meet their ADA requirements: new vehicles could be designed with the disabled in mind, with roll-on/roll-off ramps so that passengers who are less able to walk have easier access to curbside drop off. Newly designed vehicles also provide an occasion for airports to reimagine wayfaring and signage, so that airports become more navigable to international visitors and first-time travelers.
THE PROVING GROUNDS
Airports are a cultural United Nations…a spot where people from all over the world converge. Airports also are an innovation zone, where passengers have learned to expect safe and hands-free air travel, in a highly regulated industry.
Likewise, airports could provide a safe haven where consumers can be introduced to self driving vehicles and gain confidence with its safety features. A short airport trip in an autonomous vehicle to a perimeter parking lot or taxi zone is a seamless way to introduce and diffuse the innovation.
Meanwhile, for manufacturers and regulators, the airport provides a controlled and closed environment for testing. Extensive research could be done on vehicle- to- vehicle communications, road markings, and travel under all-weather road conditions. The airport is a proving ground where public entities and private firms can come together to explore technology and policy needs.
REPURPOSING THE PARKING
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to airport demonstration will not be the technology of the autonomous car itself, but rather, its predecessor, the gas powered vehicle. Major airports, like Los Angeles and Chicago have a ringed inner layout with parking, and it generates significant income. Revenue from parking concessions also helps subsidize other travel connections, like the buses and transit needed to ferry passengers from garages to terminals. The San Francisco Airport, which is probably at the low-end of parking revenue, indicates in its 2014/2015 annual report that 15% of its operating revenues come from parking and transportation. The LAX annual report (with Ontario), indicates that other operating income, which includes parking was just .4% of their operating revenue, but parking itself brought in $99.4 million.
It is unclear how airport authorities will make up this lost revenue, any more than federal and state authorities will offset dwindling gas taxes. But, many airports have taken a first step and replaced short-term parking with free, “no charge” cell-phone waiting lots. Their next step is reimagining how large parking lots might be repurposed into more valuable real estate- perhaps hotels, convention centers and meeting space.
In a couple of months, the Uber autonomous car may reach the Pittsburgh airport. The bigger, and necessary challenge, is driving it home to Chicago and airports beyond.
Elderly drivers and autonomous cars have an oddball linkage. They share some common denominators despite their gaps in years and tech experience. Both the elderly driver and vehicle tech firms wish to avoid accidents at all cost, keep insurance providers out of the mix, and drive more defensively than offensively.
Autonomous cars are being designed for all age groups, not just the elderly, but for a myriad of reasons, they currently behave on the road more like older drivers. There is a certain irony here since the older driver may say they have less trust in this technology than younger groups, yet be one of the first groups to benefit from using them.
Elderly drivers don’t speed for many reasons; they are afraid of being pulled over and, if so, losing their license and insurance, they want to be prepared and able to stop, and they compensate for their slower reaction time. In the same way, the current designers of autonomous cars want to keep rolling- and that means keeping accidents, like the recent Tesla auto-pilot failure, out of the limelight.
Everyone has a favorite story about the old person who barely reaches the steering wheel, gets on the freeway in the middle lane, and then proceeds to be passed on the left and right by speedier vehicles. The older driver is probably going at the posted speed limit, or slightly under it. In an area posted at 65 mph, other drivers might be doing an average of 70 mph leaving the senior in the dust.
The current crop of driverless cars will behave like the older driver- they do not exceed posted speed limits. A self-driving car can be even more exacting- and reduce speed to conform to the posted limits on yellow advisory signs. (Of course, this could change if a rogue programmer decided to ignore traffic laws or tailgate other vehicles).
On a bad day, a (wise) elderly driver will stay at home- rather than venture out in their car- and for now, so will the autonomous car. By bad day, we mean one where weather conditions, like heavy snow or torrential rains, obscure markings on the road bed, and make it difficult to “see”. Automotive engineers are currently working on this problem and reducing the number of “stay-at-home” days– testing has spread from sunny California to snowy, cold Michigan and Sweden. But, like the older person who is afraid of sliding off the road in icy conditions, autonomous cars will also need, at least for the time being, to adjust to and accommodate “weather.” That said, the technology is overtaking the skill set of many older drivers. Autonomous cars are being tested in low-light conditions, and their ability to navigate at dark is improving. For the elderly, and near-elderly, driving safely at night is often a concern.
The third connection between elderly drivers and autonomous cars can be characterized as more of a design factor, less one of engineering. Elderly drivers often favor plain vanilla, sensible, coupes and older model sedans. The sporty “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” is a rare find. Most older drivers do not use their car to make a statement about their lifestyle or income level. They favor functional cars that go from “point A” to “point B”.
The current crop of autonomous cars has the same sensibility. The Google car is said to resemble a jelly bean, and other test models are small and boxy. Function has overtaken form, at least for now. It may portend a sea change: Mobility from “point A” to “point B” will be the goal, and the vehicle that does it will not need to glam with extra trim and chrome. There may be even less glam, more functionality, as individual/household cars evolve to shared ones.
The elderly are likely to be one of the first markets for autonomous cars- along with other people with limited vision, and handicapped adults who have difficulty driving today. They will not be looking for a sports car, but rather, a way to safely and reliably to get around. The autonomous car will be a safe choice- and a reliable one. It will less resemble a “car” as we describe it today, and more a mobility aid and travel companion. The picture at the top of the blog gives a hint of things to come: this is a Korean designed self-driving vehicle prototype; to some, it resembles a crossover- that is a crossover of a scooter and a motorized wheelchair.
Meanwhile, future autonomous cars may be “cars” in name only. A new type of mobility may be on the horizon- one that is less about sport, as in motor-sport- and more about safety, speed limits, and security. For the present, the person sitting in that slow car ahead of you could either be an old timer, or a young techie monitoring the LIDAR array.
Keep On Truckin, “Autonomously”, is going to happen, despite the auto-pilot failure of a Tesla vehicle this past May. An overlooked irony is that the other vehicle in this accident was a driver-operated tractor-trailer. That ill-fated truck could not possibly avoid the Tesla, since it is reported that the Model S slid under the rig.
In the near future, this truck might still have a “driver” i.e., someone in the cab minding the controls, but perhaps simultaneously watching a movie. The trucking industry will be an early adopter of autonomous technology for a number of reasons. Some of these reasons are economic and some of them are cultural.
Economic Reasons- Keep On Truckin’
The economic reasons are vast because shipping is the linchpin of commerce. Nearly 70 percent of U.S. freight tonnage goes on trucks, says the ATA, an industry group. There are between 2.5 and 3 million trucks on the road that require some sort of Commercial Driver’s License and about 1.6 million of these are tractor-trailers, with 800,000 in use for long-haul operations. The demand for long-haul shipping seems to increase exponentially…a need created by a broader supply chain, warehousing, and Internet sales.
But, while freight needs amplify… the supply of heavy duty Class-8 drivers is shrinking. There are many factors (read on to Cultural Reasons). In 2014, there was a shortage of 38,000 drivers, and today, it is estimated to be around 50,000.
Payscale.com reports that “median salary for tractor-trailer driver is $17.00 per hour, and the base salaries are augmented by overtime, signing bonuses and commissions.
So, with a people shortage and a vehicle advantage, the state of Nevada began in 2015, to license its first self-driving truck. In Texas, according to a NYT article, it is legal to drive across the state with no one at the wheel. The key to growth though is technology. Earlier this year Google staff working on the autonomous car joined other robocar engineers to form a new company called Ottomotto. This Bay Area start-up is focused on ways to retrofit existing trucks and incrementally scale up to automation, with ideas like platooning.
The autonomous trucks are here, or almost. They keep on coming.
Cultural Reasons- Keep On Truckin’
The cultural reasons that favor autonomous truck driving have a lot to do with the rise, and demise of the Baby Boomer cohort. In the trucking industry today, the average driver age is 49, compared to age 42 for all U.S. workers. And, only 6% of drivers are female, compared to 47% in the workforce at large.
But, the key demographic is the rate of retirement by Boomer men. Retirements exceed new recruits and signups (often minorities) by a ratio of almost two to one.
The Baby Boomers are a generation that grew up with cars and the twentieth century will be identified as the golden age of automotives. It is no wonder that the lure of the open road, and its images of freedom and independence encouraged many men to work here.
The lure of the open road and long distance travel also brought with it a ‘roady’ life- style. The CB radio, launched for truckers in the 1970s, and served like an internet that linked drivers on the road. Truckers are still interconnected by a vast array of road-side restaurants, motels, service bays, and rest areas designed to accommodate them and their big rigs.
Although these accommodations are going nowhere, the economy, for good or for bad, is.
Truckin’ for Millennials
It is well known that the Millennial generation does not “favor” automotive travel. The irony is that the truck most preferred by the Millennials seems to the ubiquitous, urban food truck- not the trucking of the open road!
The reason may be that younger generations now spend their extra time and their extra income “exploring” on the Internet, instead of the physical road. If the twentieth century was the age of automotives, the twenty-first is the era of digital information. Habits and tastes are changing.
Younger people do not seek to become truck drivers, despite the large number of jobs and the relatively high salary. Committing to this profession means spending a week or more on the road, away from home. Many long-distance truckers, at least up to now, have had a relatively unhealthy lifestyle, probably because they sit for many hours and do not exercise much. This may not go down well with a generation that prefers to travel by Uber and bicycle. But, some of the biggest drawbacks to becoming a driver are that there are rigorous weeks of training, and then continual surveillance of drug taking, alcohol consumption and alertness. Speed counts too, so there is intense pressure to hurry things up despite the paperwork.
With all these drawbacks, there are two conclusions to be observed:
One, is that is not surprising that the Millennials shun long distance truck driving. After they played with Matchbox trucks as kids, they left them behind and the lure of the open road never caught on. Instead, their idea of a trucking adventure is frequenting a flotilla of food-trucks.
Second, returning to the original premise, it is not surprising that the autonomous trucks are going to be an integral part of future transportation. While more household drivers may still be fence-sitting about the pros and cons of automation after the autopilot accident, freight is larger, faster, and more clued in. One accident is not going to change the course of an industry that needs to be on the road 24/7.
Now there is concern that autonomous cars (self driving) will make sprawl even worse. A recent story in the WSJ, for example, speculates whether the savings from not owning a personal car will benefit Millennials will want to escape their cramped urban apartments for “bigger spreads, further away.” (Note: the full article presents both pros and cons).
There are several reasons to challenge the future relationship between driverless cars and urban sprawl. A simplistic answer is that if “hands-free” was the key factor, then millions of American commuters would already be taking the bus or train to reach their far-away homes. But, generally they don’t. It is estimated that ‘only’ about 600,000 Americans have extreme commutes of at least 90 minutes each way.
CITIES AND SPRAWL
There are vital reasons why the “extreme commute” may not happen, even when autonomous cars come to market:
The first reason is that cities are going to be better places to live and they will offer a better lifestyle than today. They will be less car-centric and there will be fewer reasons to own private cars. Cities will also become safer for other transport modes, like walking and biking, since autonomous cars are programmed to obey the speed limit and stop signs. Most importantly, they bring new opportunities to repurpose parking spaces and parking lots. This transformation might be a boon to real estate developers and should increase the green-space, as well as the supply of urban housing.
The Baby Boomers are a cohort that enjoy car-travel, and they have matured along with an auto industry that has became more reliable and affordable over time. This contrasts with younger generations, who have been weaned on computers, and lean towards life styles that are less car-centric. No one has quite nailed what this means to a cohort of Digital Natives, but there seem to be agglomeration effects. Instead of spending a leisurely afternoon driving to the out-of-town outlet mall or golf course like Boomers, Digital Natives might be more inclined to meet up at a local dive and then take short trips together around the neighborhood. So, while autonomous cars could take them “further” their choices might be closer.
COMMUTE BUDGETS, TIME BUDGETS
The second reason to question the wisdom of long commutes via autonomous cars is more technical. It is associated with “commute budgets”. As the term implies, people have fixed resources or “budgets”; they generally do not exceed one hour of commute travel time per day. This axiom is associated with a transportation researcher called Yacov Zahavi. Athough Zahavi’s work was done in the 1970s and 1980s, he discovered across different cultures, and different geographic zones, people did not generally exceed the commute budget. It was something like a law of nature.
(Note: Zahavi observed, before Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), that commuters were unlikely to switch from cars to public transit because of the time-tradeoffs.)
In the future, long distance commuters could exceed the one hour “commute budget”, if travel was done with autonomous luxury and autonomous speed. That is the fear. But, one of the main deterrents is that this travel budget then bumps up into the daily “time budget” which is still fixed at 24 hours. When commuters spend more minutes per day traveling to and from a distant suburb, they forfeit time spent on other activities. Instead of sitting in a vehicle, people might prefer to do things such as coach their kid’s soccer game, go to the gym or get on a bicycle for exercise, and even participate in person at civic activities (think bowling alone). So, while the autonomous car may let people continue to text or work while they travel and perhaps even be VR at the soccer game, it will not substitute for participating in real activities.
Beyond the travel time budget and the 24 hours activity-time budget, there is a third resource constraint: Almost all households maintain a transportation budget. In the U.S. today, the average household spends about 29 percent of its income on travel expenses. While the marketplace has yet to set a rate of “cost per mile” for autonomous travel, longer travel will cost more and potentially tip the economic balance between housing and transportation expense. It will also be subject to state and federal taxes, akin to the tax on gasoline today.
TRAVEL AND HAPPINESS
The third factor that will suppress excessive travel has to do with “happiness”. Even if autonomous cars could bring longer commute trips to more distant homes, travel is a derived activity-it is what “we do” to do something else. There is an interesting subset of research correlating wellness, happiness, and travel time. Joe Cortright at City Commentary reports on the literature between quality of life and daily commute time. Behavioral economists find that time spent commuting has the lowest positive rating of all daily activities. Longer commutes are also associated with a high incidence of obesity, back pain, and other health impacts. Even if your autonomous vehicle was super comfortable, these human impacts might continue to plague the trip.
Note that the behavioral impacts come from the time spent in the vehicle, not necessarily the traffic. Time budgets are complicated. So, one of the unusual findings from the behavioral research is that more traffic congestion is NOT negatively related to people’s sense of well being and satisfaction. While this needs further investigation, it is a clue to the future. Perhaps autonomous cars will not help people flee the city.
People generally see some benefits to being in a place congested with traffic- think getting to/from a sporting event, rock concert, school travel, or airport. It is all about being social- not about trekking long distances to reach a greener pasture. The Digital Natives may have already discovered that, and are far ahead of other generations.
Meanwhile, urban settings of the future will appear very different when residents can be comfortable and safe transversing on foot or bicycle, but also be able to seamlessly summon a vehicle on demand. Since the future cost for this transportation has not been established, we do not know the economic constraints (think transportation and time budgets). But, we do know, that people contemplating long commutes still have to wrestle with a 24 hour time budget, at least for now.
Baby Boomers will be surprised to learn that their personal autonomous car has been invented…and it’s called the “TNC, Model 2016.”
Lest the picture deceive, TNC, stands for Transportation Network Company, an acronym for services like Uber, Lyft, Lift Hero and other ride share firms. Ironically, both Uber and Lyft are investing in the technology for autonomous cars. While that technology is under beta testing….more conventional TNC service will suffice for the coming years.
A SPRAWLING DEMAND :
The demand for autonomous cars, via TNC, has to do with the geographic sprawl of Baby Boomers. This is the first generation to settle far from urban areas, and develop homes without spatial links to transit or rail. Because of sprawl and low density, it has been uneconomical to provide transit service, vis a vis road building. Only 17 percent of Boomers live in dense cities with mass transportation. An estimated 70 percent live in areas served by limited or no public transportation (see references, Chapter One, Aging in Suburbia). The remainder have settled in semi-urban areas, where it has been difficult, until now, to solve “first mile/last mile” transportation issues so most Boomers drive.
Meanwhile, cabs/taxi service has been scarce and expensive; spotting a taxi driving on these suburban roads is like encountering an endangered species in the wild. Currently, the popularity of the TNCs has made taxis even less accessible there. Taxi drivers are said to be circulating less and congregating more in places where there is reduced TNC competition like airports. It would be unlikely that a suburban resident could ever “hail” a taxi- that is flag down a vehicle just passing by through the neighborhood. Yet, essentially, that is what a TNC app, enabled by a smart-phone, makes possible. The TNC may be the leveler between urban and suburban transportation.
OLDER TNC DRIVERS:
Meanwhile, a TNC presence is growing in suburbia… in many cases because Boomers are signing up as occasional drivers. It is estimated that a quarter of Uber drivers are age 50 and older. Boomers approaching retirement age find that the gig economy provides them with a spare source of income (next avenue). It also helps them get out and meet other people. And, since Boomers are a generation that generally likes cars, and favors time on the road, driving for Uber or Lyft is an agreeable choice.
Meanwhile, Boomers have a growing demand for an “autonomous car” service. Uber even made a promotional video to explain the benefits.
SEEKING A RIDE:
An essential reason has to do with the age of the Boomer population. Today, the youngest Boomers are age 52 and the oldest are 72. A difficulty driving safely at night is one of the first onsets of advancing age. Yet it is in the evening that people throw parties, patronize the arts and concerts, and go out to eat. One only has to visit the matinee performance of a Broadway show to understand the demographics of those who do not drive after-dark.
So, having a “designated driver” at night is likely to keep Boomers active and engaged…throughout the evening. Although they will not be taking an autonomous car, the TNCs can meet the Boomer’s current need to keep busy and engaged after dark. Over time, the Boomers will seek their “designated driver” for more occasions, expanding from service at night to more daytime trips.
Medical trips are a second arena where the “autonomous car”, via TNC, is making inroads among Boomers. As they age, Boomers need a way to get to and from doctor’s visits, medical centers, and hospitals and these trips are the fastest growing source of their travel demand. Driving your personal car from suburbia, often to a large medical complex in a more urban area, is not fun. There’s the anxiety about the visit, the set-aside time to park the vehicle, and, of course, and the for-profit, per/hour hourly parking charge levied by most medical centers. But the real crunch, and need for the autonomous vehicle comes during the ride home. The driver, in this case the patient, is probably tired, and may be somewhat impaired by a prescription drug or pain reliever. It would be useful if someone, or something else, bore the responsibility for a safe trip back to suburbia.
MORE RIDES, MORE BENEFITS:
The future autonomous car brings other benefits for aging Boomers who settled in aging suburbs. The autonomous vehicle can be regulated to reduce traffic congestion, obey speed limits, and make the streetscape safer for pedestrians and bicyclists too. That can only bode well for Boomers who need to stay healthy and fit outdoors, without driving to exercise and spending hours at the gym.
It will seem odd to Boomers, who have spent so many years of their lives in their car, that they can now liberate themselves from it. But, as they gain years, they will need to shed old habits. Keeping fit, healthy, and socially engaged will take priority for them over almost anything else.
“The Timely Mile” is about to be cracked with Lyft’s new program called Scheduled Rides.
The “Timely Mile” is about waiting for a bus or taxi, and fearing that the service will not show up on time. Rather than run that risk, people will choose to drive themselves. Driving takes precedence when you have to get to the airport on time, or show up promptly for an appointment or business deal.
Lyft has a solution for the “Timely Mile” with a new program. The pilot, in San Francisco, is called Scheduled Rides. It allows riders tap a clock icon and set the desired time for a pickup. Their trip can be scheduled up to 24 hours in advance but cancelled up to 30 minutes before the requested time.
“Scheduled Rides” may seem like a small wave but it has the potential to be a bigger swell. The ability to control “Timely Miles” can bring new riders, and new opportunities for transit network companies (TNCs).
Today, public transit and walking have become more accessible because the TNCs help sort out the “first/last mile” issues for users. Now, “Scheduled Rides” begins to sort out a different piece of the transportation puzzle. It can help time-sensitive car owners feel less dependent on the need to drive.
Old and Timely
Admittedly, transportation to/from the airport will be first.
Still, one the first markets for “Scheduled Rides” will be seniors. Seniors frequently depend on public transportation to get to and from appointments, but are still reluctant to use Uber and Lyft. Since 1983, the number of medical trips made by people aged 50 and older has increased fourfold. Yet, transportation options have not kept up. An estimated 3.6 million Americans, of all age groups, miss or delay medical care because they lack appropriate transportation to their appointment.
It is a trust issue for elders, to know when a vehicle is scheduled to come, and when a different one is scheduled for the trip back home. The most needy and dependent seniors are accustomed to scheduling paratransit for medical trips, but there are numerous stories of the paratransit van not showing up on time, or even missing the stop entirely. Currently, trips made in paratransit vehicles do not tend to serve anyone well… the average cost of a paratransit ride is currently $45.00 in Boston, and elsewhere. Since the 1970’s, public transit agencies have had to foot the excessive cost of this specialized, one-on-one service.
Older people who use these services have been “conditioned” to book ahead, sometimes as much as a week in advance. When they switch to a program like Lyft’s Scheduled Rides there will be comfort knowing that the trip has been scheduled in advance. And, because so many older people are awkward using their smartphones for transportation, the 24 hour waiting period will give them the opportunity to check and recheck that they made the booking correctly. Over time, they are likely to become more familiar with how to do a successful booking with their phones.
A prediction is that once older people are comfortable and at ease with this process they will be willing taking many more trips on Lyft and Uber. These will be new trips for shopping, leisure, visits, and recreation.
Younger and Stranded
It would be an oversight to think that Lyft’s program only addresses the “Timely Mile” for the elderly. More than likely, the inspiration for the program came from an anxious Lyft employee working at home in the suburbs of Vallejo Ca. or Pacifica, Ca. wondering if they could make a 5a.m. flight from SFO without driving alone.
There are probably similar stories throughout the suburbs. These suburbanites are already registered with a TNC and use it when they work or travel to a big urban area. But, because they reside in America’s far-flung suburbs where public transit is scant, even taxi service can be unpredictable.
It is not to say that Lyft can guarantee that a driver and vehicle will show up in these far-flung suburbs…Lyft has not released the “behind the curtain magic” that powers the Scheduled Rides algorithm. In today’s suburbia, there does not appear to be a driver available for every need at every hour. That, in itself, may be an important reason that both Lyft and Uber are pursuing partnerships with autonomous vehicles. But, until that technology rolls out, having Scheduled Rides stitches closer together the needs of suburban residents and on-demand vehicles.
Lyft seems to be opening a new playbook- one that can blossom into shared rides everywhere/anytime.
If you wanted to understand vehicle trends and jumpstart the autonomous car, it is good practice to ask a woman. Although females are underrepresented in the auto industry— they hold only 27% of the jobs in motor vehicles and manufacturing and compose ~14% to ~30% of Uber/Lyft drivers, they have a remarkable ability to spot market niches and trends.
In a recent blog, we noted that older women will be the “first responders” for autonomous vehicles. There are numerous reasons: women are likely to be living alone in far-flung suburbs, but recognize, at an earlier age their limitations as safe drivers. Women are also more inclined than male drivers to ask directions (!), to use public transit, and be less wrapped up in an image-driven car culture.
The ability of women to nail transportation trends has a long, if somewhat muted, history.
The electric vehicle (EV) was, and perhaps remains the woman’s vehicle of choice. In 1898, the first woman to buy a car selected an EV and in 1908 Henry Ford bought one for his wife, Clara. Electric vehicles were favored by women. Although the EVs did not have the range of gas powered vehicles, they were quieter, did not smell of petro, and importantly, were easier to start since gas powered cars had to be cranked by hand. Since they EVs were used for local city travel, range-anxiety had yet to be invented. There might have been a niche market for the electric car, but the desire for acceleration and range took hold and left the electric car in the dust.
Speed up 100 years though, and we again have women pioneering electric vehicles. According to a recent Forbes Asia story, while Tesla and Apple are (re)working electric car technologies, a women entrepreneur from the Southern Indian city of Coimbatore is pioneering a different segment- electric cycles, scooters, and load carriers.
The entrepreneur, Hemalatha Annamalai, is focusing on the mobility needs in smaller towns. Her customers are farmers, shopkeepers and rural traders. These communities have been overlooked by the big automotive players, even Tata. She has also, per Forbes, developed a battery-powered vehicle for the disabled that travels 16 miles per hour, and has a 25 mile range.
While some might see India as a special case, a female entrepreneur here in the U.S., also succeeded when she identified a new automotive niche. Robin Chase, challenged the model of individual car ownership. Chase, the former CEO and founder of Zipcar, then started a peer-to-peer car service that was sold to Drivy. Chase has never valued speed, style, and beauty over the more basic intrinsic need to get from point A to point B.
Returning to the story of the electric car, UC Davis researchers noted in 2012 that women composed just 29% of Nissan Leaf owners, 24% for the Volt , and just 16% for the 16% of Tesla S. When the researchers studied the driving habits of electric vehicle adopters, they found that women had more anxiety about range. Perhaps their mindset went like this: “What if…the kids gets sick, what if… grandma needs a ride, or someone asks me for a lift…”.
The men (and women) designing cars might take note. On the one hand, they can either continue to market gas powered cars with better mileage, or… and this is the clinch…address range anxiety by engineering an easy way to swap out batteries, provide flash recharging stations, or keeping a small petro cache.
There are multiple ways to harness a new technology, and a trajectory of different paths that could be followed. The key is that if women ruled the automotive boardroom (today they are just 16%) and were more influential in engineering and planning, we would probably be on a faster path towards developing a quieter, electric, and fully autonomous car. Even so, we will probably get there, but it will be, ironically, a slower journey.
“It’s women first for autonomous cars.” That is, older women, who may discover the advantages of the autonomous car sooner, and cede their driving skills faster than men. Men and women from the Boomer cohort are past their peak driving age, but continue to dominate the car market. With the autonomous car on the horizon, older women might “steer” the market shift.
When they lined up for driver’s licenses at age 16, it was boys who led the pack. Today, as the oldest Boomers reach age 70, it is Boomer women who will play a pivotal role. There are deep cultural reasons to anticipate they can be trailblazers.
WOMEN AS TRAILBLAZERS: SHEER NUMBERS
In a previous blog, we noted the match between aging Boomers and future autonomous cars. We suggested that they might be early adopters as autonomous cars can help Boomers maintain their independence and well-being. The autonomous car is also vital, on a more basic level, to keep Boomers connected, particularly if they live in far-flung suburbs not served by public transportation.
Women will be the trailblazers for a number of reasons. The first reason is actuarial: More of the residents who live in the far-flung suburbs will be widows or divorcees, i.e. single women. Since 1990, the divorce rate for Americans over the age of 50 has doubled. Large numbers of women have achieved financial independence and autonomy…and choose to live alone. The other reason is that older women live longer. In the U.S. the male to female ratio falls to .72 beyond age 65. While not all older, single women will choose to “age in place” those who do need a safe, reliable, and trustworthy mode of transportation. That key could be the autonomous vehicle.
WOMEN AS TRAILBLAZERS: SAFER, SLOWER
Women are likely to innovate for other reasons too. Most likely, they will have a different “take” on mobility. Researchers have found that older women are more likely to hang up the car keys than men and recognize when they are no longer capable drivers. In an older study (1993) it was found that 84 percent of men age 75 to 79 were still driving, but only 60 percent of women; after age 85, more than half of the men still drove, compared to 22% of women. Perhaps women are more likely to follow safety advice from their medical advisors or kin. Or, women may have a more tangible fear of injuring a pedestrian or fellow passenger. Whatever the reasons, women drive less “sooner”.
The Baby Boom generation is significantly different than other groups of elders when it comes to cars. They were the first cohort to have “his” and “her” vehicles, propelled by the dual-income family. Boomer women became unwitting chauffeurs for kids and teens, as well as aging parents. Helping with their older parents has sensitized Boomer women to the importance of keeping mobile and having a backup as you age in place.
The majority of Boomers, about 70 percent of men and women, live in suburbs that are not served by public transportation. That leaves a big gap between their geographic location and their future needs. It is said that the average travel for a doctor’s visit is ten miles, and even a trip to the grocery store or hairdresser might be fairly remote. Compelling data comes from a 1993-1995 study by Foley et al, using life-expectancy tables: it was estimated that male drivers aged 70 to 74 would be dependent on alternative sources of transportation for approximately 7 years and female drivers for approximately 10 years.
WOMEN AS TRAILBLAZERS: FUNCTIONAL NEEDS
The promising news, is that Boomer women are not as vested in the symbolic car-culture as men. Women, for the most part, do not buy muscle cars, big trucks, nor do they favor race vehicles. A stereotype, but women drivers do clearly enjoy their minivans and large SUVs. There has been a utilitarian purpose underlying these models- driving the kids or the grandparents, plus groceries for the household.
A future utilitarian but functional autonomous car will probably be less of an affront to their driving sensibility. Meanwhile, it will also free them from tire shopping and visiting the auto mechanic, outings that are not ranked favorably by women of any age. But, the most important, and liberating aspect of the autonomous car is that it will get them places, and help them maintain their independence and a car-centric lifestyle, learned and practiced over a lifetime.
Baby Boomers have shaped auto industry trends over the past forty years and they will continue to be influencers. Although America may have passed “peak auto” this cohort has not peaked when it comes to Detroit. The Boomers, currently ages 52 to 70, will have a substantial effect on the types of vehicles that are produced, and provide a ready market for innovation.
The underlying reason has to do with their sheer number, and demographics. Plus, of course, aging-in -suburbia.
AN OLDER, READY MARKET
In 2020 when the first self- driving cars reach the market, the oldest Boomers will be reaching age 75. Safety and mobility issues will be high on their agenda. By 2035, when most new cars are predicted to be capable of driving themselves, the oldest Boomers will be close to 90 and the youngest will be in their 70s.
Polls show that even today, there is a surprising level of interest in the self-driving car among older people. Autonomous cars will find a ready market with Baby Boomers as they grow older or frail. In contrast to other types of innovation, it is the disenfranchised- in this case, those who cannot or should not drive, who could be innovation pioneers. A Google car spokesperson, Chris Urmson, intuited this in a recent talk.
The Boomers differ from other generations in how they think about the need for cars. For this cohort, travel by car is synonymous with independence and well being. This association might have been cultivated by 40 years of popular culture- think images of cars and the good life depicted in TV shows, movies, SuperBowl Ads, and billboards. Having access to a car will continue to be vital to aging Boomers, as the majority do not know of a different lifestyle.
CHANGING THE OWNERSHIP
Meanwhile, as the autonomous car both prequels and propels mobility, there is a second trend that the Boomers will need to assimilate. Although Boomers may be accustomed to owning or leasing their personal vehicle, they are likely to discover, and prefer, a different business model.
Rather than owning a vehicle that sits idle 96 percent of the time, Boomers and other users will transact mobility with their cell phones in order to order a trip-based vehicle. Even in the suburbs, cars might evolve into a “travel-on-demand” service. This radical change has benefits for older people, who no longer need to buy and maintain a vehicle, and bear rising insurance costs. A car-on-demand will help ensure safer travel in a state-of-the-art vehicle. And, in keeping with their reverence, the car-on-demand might turn out to be stylish and luxurious too, a vehicle that can reflect their personal tastes, as well as the more basic need to travel.
EMPTY GARAGES AND FULL TRIPS
Meanwhile, imagine the emptiness of the suburban home with its capacious two- car garage and 400 to 600 square feet of open space. Planners have begun to talk about repurposing the parking spaces that the autonomous car will free up (up to an estimated 24% of the area in U.S. cities) but they have not paid attention to the more lowly suburban garage.
Boomers have had a love affair with the car throughout their lives, and current data suggests that they are not cutting back on their driving as they age. This is the generation that has innovated with cars in many ways: they ushered in the two car family, vastly increased VMT (vehicle miles traveled), and substituted vehicles for short trips instead of on bike or foot.
As they get older, the Boomers will continue to be the generation on the forefront of automotive change. As their age and infirmities bring new mobility needs, the automotive industry (and tech firms) will find this generation to be ready first-responders.
“Slowing down” is an age-friendly expression. But what if slowing down could actually be a good thing, and helped you live longer and better?
In the case of Aging and Transportation, slowing down, the traffic that is, carries benefits. 2015 was the deadliest driving year since 2008 with an estimated 38,300 deaths, and 4.4 million serious injuries (NHTSA data). While it may be coincidental, the four states that saw the biggest percentage rise in traffic deaths also have a surging population of aging Baby Boomers, namely Oregon, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.
Slowing down traffic speeds is particularly vital for aging Boomers, and others needing to cut back their driving. A primary reason is that reduced speed helps the older driver feel safer on the road, and it reduces the likelihood of injuring himself or an innocent bystander.
A car trip that takes them a few minutes longer will not be viewed as a deterrent. Here is the reason:
If a pedestrian is hit by a speeding driver at a default speed limit of 30 miles per hour (mph) there is a 30 percent chance that person will die. That number goes up to 80 percent if the driver is going 40 mph. At 20 mph, a safe speed limit for an urban area, there is a 98% chance the same pedestrian will live.
A related reason for Boomers to support “slowing down” is that when roads reduce speeds they then become safer for all other transportation modes. In recent years the mode share for bicycles, walking, and transit has accelerated, particularly in urban areas. Although Millennials have led this trend, it bodes well for older people. Bike lanes and wider sidewalks unlock the streets to new modes. For seniors, this may encourage more travel on bike as well as short trips via battery operated scooters, small electric vehicles, golf carts, and other variants. Slower road speeds make these alternative vehicles more likely.
A third reason that slower speeds matter has to do with reaction time- an AAA site notes that during each mile driven- the average driver makes about 20 major decisions. Drivers have less than one-half second to react to avoid a potential collision. With advancing age, drivers have to manage slower reaction times, and often decreased muscular flexibility. A lower speed limit gives the older driver a fraction of “time” to deal with the cognitive flood.
Meanwhile, there is a growing safety problem that plagues drivers of all ages. It is called “distracted walking.” Pedestrian injuries are spiking as more people walk, but are distracted from the pavement by their electronic gear and smartphones. Lowering the speed limit gives drivers more time to react to something that crosses their threshold, like a pedestrian oblivious to a right turning car. At some point the older pedestrian will be the one to amble, and the lower speed limit might help them safely transverse a wide, busy street.
“Slow” driving- an upper speed limit of 55 on the freeways, was introduced by the federal government in the 1970’s as a fuel saving measure, but raised to 65 mph in 1987. Then, in 1995 Congress repealed the law, and returned the speed limit setting authority to the states. Faster speed limits are the province of truckers, big states with dispersed populations, and anti-regulation groups. The need for speed has also played well with advertisers that link fast cars to concepts like independence, performance, and sportiness.
But, “slow speed” is making a return, as it did in the 1970’s. This time it is an urban initiative. There is currently a council proposal to lower speeds in Boston, Mass. New York City lowered its default speed limit from the standard 30 mph to 24 mph in 2014.
Lowering the speed limit has more precedents. Drivers are accustomed to honoring reduced speeds around schools, hospitals, and in certain residential neighborhoods with school age children. Boomers can be pleased that their grandchildren are protected by lower speed limits in these special zones.
These same kids might be pleased if Grandma and Grandpa received equal protection. With a modicum of technology, cars can be programmed to travel at the posted speed and a smart chip can display speeding violations, or record them for a driver’s insurance company or “guardian.” Slowing down cars is now feasible- it is the driver’s who must also be won over. That may not be difficult since 21 percent of those age 65 and older do not drive. The Boomers, who have isolated themselves in car dependent suburbs, will need to find ways to stay-on-the road.