Older man in old car

Autonomous Cars Still a Blind Spot for Older Drivers

Those who could benefit most from self-driving vehicles tend to be least accepting of it. How do we bridge the gap to make roads safer?


Today, most drivers are familiar with assistive technologies. Rear-view cameras, automatic headlights, cruise control and hazard warnings have become the norm. But how easy would it be to make the jump from assisted driving to a fully self-driving car?

Relinquishing control to a fully automated vehicle might seem daunting. But high-resolution cameras, light and distance sensors, and complex computer systems could keep risky drivers, and other road users, safe.

Unfortunately, those that could benefit most — individuals with impaired or declining sensory, cognitive or motor functions such as older adults — are unlikely to be the first to embrace this new technology.

To understand more about acceptance of automated vehicles, a team of University Health Network (UHN) researchers invited older adults to experience self-driving in a state-of-the-art-driving simulator.

Thirty-six participants aged 65 to 90, drove in three simulated scenarios: heavy rain, high traffic and clear daytime. Each 10-minute simulation was completed twice, with manual (participant) and self-driving (full computer) control.

Participants were all regular drivers with no previous experience of high-level driving automation. The immersive simulation, conducted in the DriverLab simulator at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, included a full-sized Audi A3 mounted on a turntable and surrounded by high resolution projectors.

Before and after each session, participants rated their comfort with, and acceptance of, fully automated vehicles. While driving, the researchers assessed various aspects of driving style, including speed, braking and accelerating.

Unsurprisingly, the results suggest that older adults (80+) have more negative expectations of self-driving performance compared to younger participants, while challenging conditions (rain and traffic) reduce expectations across the board.

Similarly, more cautious drivers (particularly those with cautious braking behaviours) had a more negative attitude towards using fully automated vehicles.

However, while ‘acceptance levels’ increased post-exposure (from 25% to 39%), this result was not significant. The researchers suggest that selection bias may have contributed to an unusually high pre-exposure level of acceptance among participants. Even so, the team believe that highly reliable self-driving experiences increase acceptance of fully self-driving cars.

“It is projected that age-related frailties will be the leading cause of fatal road accidents by 2025,” says senior author Alex Mihailidis, a senior scientist at the KITE Research Institute. “While fully automated vehicles could potentially help older adults maintain their independence while keeping our roads safe, our findings suggest we need to customize the automated driving experience to the user to help build trust in this technology.”

On a practical level, fully automated self-driving cars are still ‘sci-fi’ for most drivers. But as automation grows, helping at-risk drivers embrace new technology could conserve their mobility and autonomy, while keeping our roads safe.

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Amy Noise is a science communicator who is fascinated by how and why the world works. Always learning, she is passionate about science and sharing it with the world to improve and protect our health, society and environment. Amy earned her BSc (biology and science communication) at the University of Manchester, and MSc (nutrition science and policy) at King’s College London, UK. She tweets sporadically @any_noise