EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Merrimack Valley

April 13, 2014

Self-driving cars could keep seniors in the driver's seat

My Grandma Bobbie is 93 and lives on her own, in a spotless condo decorated with enviable midcentury furnishings. The daughter of a General Motors millwright, she grew up in Detroit riding the streetcar, but one of her goals was to get to the promised land — the suburbs — and preferably by car.

For my grandmother, like many older people in her cohort, a car is not only a convenience or a luxury — though it is that; Grandma loved Lincolns and Cadillacs and now drives a Lexus — it is a lifeline, the only way to make regular trips to the store, to visit with family or to attend medical appointments.

Her best friend, Evelyn, who is 97 and still in excellent health, gave up her car last year after a few traffic incidents and immediately had to move into an apartment in an assisted-living facility. Evelyn is cheery and social and has enjoyed the change — she loves not having to cook for herself.

But my grandmother is far more reserved and fiercely independent. When I asked her about the assisted-living site, she told me, “Evelyn says I’d hate it.” I’m certain Evelyn is right.

But there will soon be another option. Science-fiction fears of a robot takeover aside, the self-driving car is now within reach. And while a fully autonomous vehicle may not be ideal for all — for example, auto journalists/enthusiasts like me, for whom exploring a car’s capabilities is both enjoyable and a professional mandate — access to one may allow seniors like my grandma to maintain their sense of self, their pride and their elaborate hairdos. (Not a joke: Forgoing personal hygiene, even in the form of weekly trips to what Bobbie calls her “beauty operator,” can be a symptom of or catalyst to mental and physical decline.)

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