Florida seniors could hold the future of driverless cars

As supporters and critics debate self-driving vehicles, 125,000 senior citizens who live in a central Florida retirement community will take them for a ride in the world's largest self-driving experiment. They'll travel 750 miles of roads in The Villages retirement community near Orlando.

Voyage, an autonomous vehicle (AV) startup specializing in a robo-taxi service, will pick them up at their homes and drive them free of charge to and from grocery stores, theaters, pools, golf and tennis with only a "technician" on board to monitor the system -- and take the wheel if necessary. Later on, the technician will be dropped and a transportation fee added.

If this rollout proves successful, it could pave the way for AVs to assist seniors nationwide with needed services. It could also give a lift to this fledgling industry at a time when automakers are coming under fire for moving too fast on self-driving vehicles -- and the federal government for moving too slowly.

But in this community, older Americans seem to like it. "There's been tons of interest by seniors, and no complaints," Voyage's CEO Oliver Cameron said. "They feel like pioneers." Calls to The Villages didn't get a response.

Seniors are an ideal group for driverless cars, particularly in a controlled environment like The Villages -- a planned community where homes, roads and commercial districts are neatly laid out. Voyage has hired Carmera, a Brooklyn, New York, mapping company, to outline the community, including street signs, intersections and parking lots. A Ford Fusion equipped with rooftop Light Detection and Ranging, or LIDAR, will be able to take seniors where they want to go by "seeing" the road the same way a driver would.

Cameron said 80 percent of The Villages' residents, whose average age is 72, have smartphones and will be able to access this free service through an app provided by Voyage. Polls show that the growing senior population is eager for AVs. "They certainly have a need for this as their biggest problem is visual impairment," Cameron said. "Many can no longer drive, or drive only during the daytime."

Located in Santa Clara, California, Voyage is a spin-off of Udacity, an online education company co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, a former Google (GOOG) vice president. "It was Thrun who said to 'go after this market,'" said Cameron.

But AV technology has been given a caution signal from worried consumer groups across the country. Consumer Federation of America spokesperson Jack Gillis, the author of "The Car Book," said on Friday that Congress was "asleep at the wheel" and had basically given car companies a blank check to create their own driverless cars without any real oversight or regulation from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Jackie Gillen, former president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said even executives who spoke at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last week "seem to feel that a lot of hurdles remain" before driverless cars can take to the actual highway. He cited polls that showed Americans don't yet support driverless cars.

Experiments are also underway in Michigan at Mcity's "Test Facility" in Ann Arbor, where a mile-long track at the University of Michigan simulates real driving conditions that include bicyclists and pedestrians.

"Driverless technology has made a lot of progress," said Mcity Director Huei Peng, who pointed out all the advantages a California or Florida senior community had over real-world driving: a supportive, affluent community with few pedestrians, low speed limits and good weather.

"But best wishes to them," said Peng. "They are trailblazers."

A lot more trailblazing will be seen at the Detroit Auto Show, which started this weekend. AV technology and self-driving cars are a big draw for automakers, including one by General Motors (GM) that no longer includes a steering wheel or brake pedal. Renault-Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn predicted the "complete arrival and mass marketing of autonomous driving vehicles in the next six years." But other studies said it will be 2050 before they gain total acceptance.

According to a white paper by the Insurance Information Institute, which represents auto insurers, the three biggest issues are legal liability (whether the car or driver is at fault in an accident), federal and state policies toward AV, and consumer acceptance.

But the Voyage project in central Florida could help win over consumers for driverless cars among one of the key consumer groups: the growing number of America's senior citizens. "We have a long way to go before this is viable for everyone in the country," said Cameron. "But if we succeed here, it will be much easier to win universal acceptance."

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.