On the Road Again: How Self-Driving Vehicles Will Help Older Adults Stay Connected with Friends, Family and Their Community

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Written by: Sheila Zinck

According to the recent IBV study, Loneliness and the aging population: How businesses and government can address a looming crisis, loss of mobility and limited transportation options can lead to significant physical and social isolation for older adults. And as the report points out, loneliness and isolation can have a devastating impact on physical and psychological health.

IBM, together with the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) Foundation and Local Motors, has been working to enhance Local Motors’ self-driving vehicle Olli to become personalized and adaptive to a rider’s abilities and preferences. The goal? To help the growing aging population and people with disabilities maintain their independence and self-sufficiency and keep them connected and engaged with their communities.

I recently interviewed Gina O’Connell, Director of Labs for Local Motors, about what we learned from the workshops and focus groups we held with older adults earlier this year. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

If you are going to create an accessible vehicle, include older adults in the design process.

Our goal for the #AccessibleOlli program is to design the world’s most accessible self-driving vehicle, delivering an inclusive experience for people of all abilities. We want to support the needs of people who may have one or more physical or cognitive challenges, including vision, hearing, mobility, or memory impairments. And as we grow older – and we’re all growing older – we will acquire a range of these disabilities. So, older adults represent an ideal community for us to explore accessibility requirements and test design ideas.

The freedom to go where I want, when I want.

Working with AARP and the Front Porch organization, we held focus groups and visited several communities to hear directly from the residents about their transportation issues. They wanted to be mobile and out in their neighborhoods, enjoying their community, shopping for themselves, running errands – all the things in life we take for granted based upon the ability to leave your home and go somewhere.

However, while some were still driving, the mobility of most was greatly diminished. Many found themselves increasingly homebound and isolated, dependent on relatives or transit systems that posed new challenges. While grateful to their caregivers and community centers, they wanted their independence and control back.

We expected to hear “I’m afraid to get in this vehicle”…… instead, they asked “How soon can we get this?”

Across all of our meetings and workshops, we found very few people to be tech-averse – rather many were already quite comfortable using systems like Echo, and curious about self-driving vehicles and new technologies. Some did express concerns about their safety inside Olli – what if someone dangerous entered the vehicle or if they had a medical incident? And we were able to reassure them that with Watson machine vision and learning, Olli could quickly recognize the problem. Olli’s control systems then could notify the proper authorities and reroute the vehicle to the closest point for assistance, faster than a bus driver.

And they were quite eager to tell us how we could adapt and improve the Olli experience for them. Across the board, older adults want flexibility and choice in how they communicate with Olli – by voice, text, or touch, depending on their circumstances and location. They also want Olli to recognize them and their preferences, and automatically adjust the interaction for them across the experience, from calling for a ride, boarding the vehicle and getting to their destination.

Accessible and autonomous – for all of us.

What older adults are telling us translates to everyone.  We take so much of our mobility for granted but who hasn’t gone out into the sun, or had something blow in their eye and then couldn’t see for a while?  Or been someplace where there’s loud noise and you couldn’t hear well? Or had to navigate over uneven ground, or with your arms full of packages?

We all experience situational disabilities like these, so as we build new features into Olli to make it more accessible, we are in fact creating a better vehicle and experience for all of our riders.

To learn more about the #AccessibleOlli program, please watch the video and visit us at the #AccessibleOlli experience at CES 2018.