Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Older adults continue driving until the last 6 to 10 years of their lives, though their ability to safely operate a vehicle may diminish because of illness, limited mobility or side effects of medication.

The big picture: The U.S. has 47 million adults 65 and over — a number that is only expected to grow — and 80% of them hold a driver’s license and live in areas that require a car to get around. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to remake older drivers' golden years by allowing them to maintain independence while still giving up their car keys.

Like many Americans, older drivers will need to overcome their anxieties about AVs to give them a chance. They will also face unique challenges, like learning to navigate ride-hailing apps and added difficulties should they need to assume some level of manual control. The AV may need to allow a longer window of time for older riders with limited mobility to enter or exit the vehicle, or to include control options for a caregiver accompanying riders with physical or cognitive impairments.

AVs also hold financial promise for the over-65 crowd, since transportation is retirees' second biggest expense. Because AV ride-sharing may be cheaper than owning a vehicle or being driven by someone else, it could save older adults money while still affording them autonomy. AV delivery services could further reduce the number of trips they need to make themselves, perhaps also at lower cost.

The bottom line: Among older adults, giving up driving has been linked to depression, isolation, and early entry into nursing home facilities. It also burdens caregivers. AVs could therefore have much to offer that would improve their well-being.

Laura Fraade-Blanar is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health and an adjunct researcher at the RAND Corporation.

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