Driven by technology

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Your broke your glasses (or your foot)? You had surgery recently? Your car’s in the shop?
Getting from here to there — to the doctor’s office, to the grocery store, to a concert, to the hospital — can become a problem for all of us at one time or another.
The solution? Call a cab. Call a friend. Take the bus. We can usually work around it for awhile.
But getting around can become a daily struggle for those who can no longer safely drive, either due to poor vision, a chronic or permanent disability, or the lack of a car (or of access to the keys).
That’s why, for a number of years now, the most common concerns raised by those calling aging and disability services hotlines tend to be transportation-related.
A number of more-or-less satisfactory solutions exist, ranging from public paratransit systems for those unable to use public transit (MTA Mobility in Baltimore; Metro Access in Greater Washington), to volunteer drivers, subsidized taxis and the like. These are helpful (but often far from ideal) options we have written about in the Beacon many times over the years.
But today I want to write about a futuristic solution that is, amazingly, almost ready for prime time — namely, “self-driving cars.”
Perhaps you’ve read about these cars, enhanced with self-driving technology by Google (yes, the Internet search engine people). There are about a dozen such computer-run vehicles on the road today, mostly in California, following programmed instructions and rooftop radar that control their route, turns, speed, braking and parking.
A person sits in the driver’s seat, but only in case of emergency (and probably to keep other folks from driving off the road at the sight of a driverless car).
They are still being tested and improved, but so far, we are told these vehicles have driven more than 300,000 miles without a single accident — that is, without a single accident they have caused. Vehicles driven by people have run into them from behind on occasion.
Google says its research has shown the automatic cars have outperformed professional drivers in accident simulations.
Take a look at the self-driving car doing its thing on a three-minute YouTube video, in which nearly blind Steve Mahan, a resident of Morgan Hill, Calif., is driven from his home to a taco drive-through and his neighborhood dry cleaner and back again  (www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdgQpa1pUUE).
Three states have already passed legislation permitting such cars on their roads: California, Nevada and Florida. It is probably no coincidence that California and Florida also happen to have more residents 65 and over than any other states in the Union.
Given the higher rate of accidents per mile among older drivers, and the greater risk of fatality that older adults experience in auto crashes, the promise of an accident-free and totally independent mode of transportation for those no longer able to drive on their own would be a dream come true — not only for otherwise homebound people themselves, but for their families and indeed everyone else on the road.
Of course, such a solution, while possibly accident-free and driver-free, is not free. At present, the computer and radar components that make Google’s customized cars autonomous cost a reported $150,000 per car.
But most people will not need to own such a car themselves. I envision companies with a small fleet of them using an online reservation system that keeps its cars taking people back and forth pretty much 24/7 (once they teach the cars how to fill themselves at a gas station!).
In the meantime, car manufacturers including Lexus and Ford are already selling a number of models that can parallel park themselves, have “adaptive cruise control” (which maintains a safe distance from cars in front), and “lane keep assist” systems that, with cameras and automated steering control, keep cars safely within their lane when the driver fails to do so.
These existing technologies — plus new ones in development that will allow cars to communicate with each other on the road and maneuver safely in crowded conditions, such as Ford’s “Traffic Jam Assist” — will transform both public and private transportation.
And I don’t mean in the distant future, either. Reportedly, Ford envisions selling a self-driving car by 2017, building on currently available technologies.
Yes, our demographic realities will mean rapidly increasing numbers of older drivers (and non-drivers) in the coming years. But fortunately, inventive and daring engineers are crafting what appears to be a solution in tandem with the problem.