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  • InsideTrack
  • December 19, 2018

    The Future of Autonomous Vehicles for the Elderly and Individuals with Disabilities

    Autonomous vehicles could be transformative in meeting the mobility needs of the elderly and individuals with disabilities. But the reality is still a future away.

    Matthew S. Geimer

    elderly woman inside a car

    Dec. 19, 2018 – The development of safe autonomous vehicles (AVs) could bring wide-ranging benefits to society, including for the elderly and individuals with a disability.

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recognizes six levels of automation for AVs, from Level 0 with no automation to full automation in Level 5.1 Tesla’s Autopilot, for instance, is considered Level 2 partial automation.2

    Along with automation, there may be widespread adoption of connected vehicles (CVs). CVs could share data directly with other vehicles (V2V) or the environment (V2X).3 For instance, CVs could share that there is an icy spot on the road or allow cars to safely travel in much closer proximity.

    Impact of AV Adoption on Society

    The most obvious benefit of AVs is that it would free up driving time to be used more productively, for business or pleasure. In addition, with no driver necessary, cars, which on average are parked 95 percent of the time,4 could instead run errands, be rented, or shared with others.

    With 94 percent of serious vehicle accidents caused by human error, widespread deployment of safe AV technology should dramatically reduce the current frequency of crashes.5 In 2017, more than 37,000 Americans died from car accidents6 (roughly the equivalent of a 737 crashing five days a week).7 Crashes result in an estimated $242 billion in annual economic costs ($784 per person in the U.S.).8

    Also, AVs may reduce traffic congestion. Traffic incidents like accidents cause about 25 percent of all congestion delays.9 With fewer accidents, we should see a corresponding reduction in congestion. In addition, AVs should reduce congestion by maximizing the capacity of roads. AVs can safely drive closer to each other, which allows:

    1. more cars per lane and

    2. narrower lanes, and thus more lanes per surface area.

    For instance, one study found that “platooning AVs could increase lane capacity (vehicles per lane per hour) by up to 500 percent.”10

    As applied to older clients, per the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s website, even though older drivers are less likely to speed or drive under the influence, those over age 70 who are driving are still more likely to be involved in a car accident while driving, and that crash is more likely to be fatal for them.

    Of course, not all aspects of widespread AV adoption will be positive. There likely would be an increase in overall vehicle miles traveled as the costs of driving (monetary, time, productivity, etc.) is reduced. This could, to name a few examples, limit some of the expected reduction in traffic congestion, have negative environmental effects, and encourage greater urban/suburban sprawl.

    Additionally, AVs will cause (and already have caused) accidents and could be subject to nefarious hacking. AV and CV technology would also likely significantly affect privacy that we (and our clients) currently enjoy.

    When and How Will AVs Affect the Elderly and Individuals with a Disability?

    AVs, particularly fully autonomous vehicles, present the potential for a life-altering improvement in meeting the mobility needs of the elderly and individuals with a disability.

    Matthew GeimerMatthew Geimer is a lecturer of business law for the Austin E. Cofrin School of Business at U.W.-Green Bay.

    There are 49 million Americans over 65 and 53 million Americans have some form of disability.11 Risks from car crashes are significantly higher for the elderly. Compared to drivers aged 55-64, drivers over 75 and over 85 are more than 2.5 and almost 4 times as likely to die in a crash, respectively.12 This risk is “due both to increased likelihood of accidents and greater vulnerability to injuries.”13

    Quitting driving for older adults is not without its own drawbacks. “Driving cessation almost doubles the risk of increased depressive symptoms.”14 Further, it limits freedom, diminishes quality of life, and creates a less integrated setting, such as for a resident of a rural adult family home.

    AVs could give these individuals freedom that others take for granted. One of Google’s first videos touting its AVs in 2012 showed its vehicle “driven” by a legally blind man, Steve Mahan, to a destination of his choice. Where did he want to go? Taco Bell!15

    Also, one study found that, because of the current lack of access to reliable transportation, AVs “would enable new employment opportunities for approximately 2 million individuals with disabilities.”16

    Unfortunately, relative to the general population, the elderly and people with disabilities may have delayed access to AVs. First, those unable to drive can only “drive” fully autonomous vehicles. Level 0-3 vehicles, which require the driver to either completely control the vehicle all the time, a portion of the time, or at a minimum be capable of taking control, will be of limited benefit to individuals who cannot drive.17

    AV manufacturers have taken different approaches to the development of AVs. Some prefer an incremental approach, adding driver assistance features over time, such as adaptive cruise control or lane-keep technology. This will delay access to AVs for the nondriving population.

    Others, such as Alphabet’s Waymo (formerly Google’s AV project), have argued that AV manufacturers should skip the incremental approach and focus on developing fully autonomous vehicles.18 They argue that Level 5 vehicles will be safer because it is dangerous to rely on a human driver to be constantly alert to take over driving responsibilities as needed.

    One study showed that drivers who were told to monitor a Level 3 vehicle on a test track were looking away from the forward roadway for approximately 33 percent of the time.19 Tragically, this may have played a role in the death of a Tempe, Arizona, pedestrian struck by Uber’s AV March 18, 2018. Police reports later found that Uber’s “driver” was watching “The Voice” on her cellphone around the time of the crash.20

    Second, the elderly and people with disabilities may not have access to AVs because AVs, particularly initially, are projected to be quite expensive.

    Of course, individuals in need of adaptive technology for their transportation already face significant costs. AVs might actually eliminate some of these costs because the vehicle would not need to be adapted to allow the individual to drive.

    Elder law attorneys will need to be cognizant of the high costs of AVs, particularly when planning for individuals with special needs or exempt asset planning for Medical Assistance.

    Some argue that most people will not own AVs but will rent them per use, much like Uber without the driver. One study estimated that the “per-mile cost of using a shared autonomous vehicle service could be 30 percent to 90 percent less than owning a conventional vehicle or using conventional taxis.”21

    Lastly, individuals should benefit from AVs even if they personally do not ride in them. For instance, in August 2018 grocery giant Kroger and AV company Nuro piloted a driverless grocery delivery service in Scottsdale, Arizona.22


    As Yogi Berra noted, “It is tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”23 It is unclear when, or if, AVs will be widely adopted.

    It should be clear, though, that AVs could dramatically improve the quality of life for the elderly and individuals with a disability in expected and unexpected ways.

    This article was originally published in the Elder Law & Special Needs Journal of Wisconsin, the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Elder Law and Special Needs Section newsletter. Visit the section webpage to learn more about the benefits of section membership or to join the section.


    1 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Automated Vehicles for Safety (2018).

    2 Kyle Hyatt & Chris Paukert, Self-driving cars: A level-by-level explainer of autonomous vehicles, CNET (March 29, 2018).

    3 U.S. Department of Transportation, Preparing for the Future of Transportation - Automated Vehicles 3.0 (October 2018).

    4 James M. Anderson et al., Autonomous Vehicle Technology: A Guide for Policymakers, RAND Corporation 26 (2016).

    5 U.S. Dep’t of Transp., supra note 3.

    6 Id.

    7 Tracy Hresko Pearl, Fast & Furious: The Misregulation of Driverless Cars, 73 N.Y.U. Ann. Surv. Am. L. 19, 36.

    8 Mark A. Geistfeld, A Roadmap for Autonomous Vehicles: State Tort Liability, Automobile Insurance, and Federal Safety Regulation, 105 Calif. L. Rev. 1611, 1614.

    9 Anderson et al., supra note 4, at 23.

    10 Id. at 21.

    11 Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., supra note 1.

    12 Nidhi Kalra, Challenges and Approaches to Realizing Autonomous Vehicle Safety and Mobility Benefits, RAND Corporation (2017).

    13 Id.

    14 Id.

    15 Salvador Rodriguez, Google's self-driving car takes blind man to Taco Bell, Los Angeles Times (March 29, 2012).

    16 Henry Claypool et al., The Ruderman White Paper - Self-Driving Cars: The Impact on People with Disabilities, Ruderman Family Foundation (2017).

    17 Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., supra note 1.

    18 Geistfeld, supra note 8, at 1626.

    19 Pearl, supra note 7, at 59.

    20 Heather Somerville & David Shepardson, Uber car's 'safety' driver streamed TV show before fatal crash: police, Reuters (June 22, 2018).

    21 Kalra, supra note 12.

    22 Megan Rose Dickey, Nuro and Kroger are deploying self-driving cars for grocery delivery in Arizona today, TechCrunch (August 16, 2018).

    23 Anderson et al., supra note 4, at 149.

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