It’s worth noting that even seven seconds, the time it takes a younger driver to take over the wheel, is a dangerous amount of time. To the extent pedestrians will be at risk from these mid-stage driverless cars, they’re more likely to be seniors, too. The US Department of Transportation estimates that people over the age of 65 are two to eight times more likely than other pedestrians to die when struck by a car.

Not only are the claims that these systems might help older people overblown, they’re also made, for the most part, without including those older people in studies of the effects of the technology. Li says that when the Newcastle team reviewed the literature to see what experiments had been done on aging drivers and driverless cars, they found almost nothing. “Older people, compared to younger people, have less access to this technology,” Li told me, referring not just to autonomous driving features on existing cars—Tesla Autopilot, Cadillac Super Cruise, and the like—but also to participation in the research on this topic.

This is a common cycle in technology, more broadly. Over and over again, designers claim their products will be great for an aging population without actually including that population in the conversation. “I think there’s been a lot of new technologies being marketed toward older adults but that haven’t necessarily been designed for them, with their capabilities in mind,” Wendy Rogers, a professor at the University of Illinois, told me for an episode of my podcast Flash Forward.


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Take, for example, pill reminder devices—apps, or computer-enhanced pill dispensers that are meant to help seniors remember when to take which medications. These range from basic pill boxes with an alarm that goes off when it’s time to take them, all the way to internet-connected “smart dispensers” that look more like a SodaStream than a medicine cabinet. In many cases, such products were designed by younger people with little sense of what seniors actually need. “So, the buttons are small, the voice quality is not easy to hear, the number of steps required to set it up to get it to do what you want to do is complicated,” Rogers told me. “There are a lot of apps out there, things that are supposed to support pain management, for example, and they’re just not designed well for older adults.”

Instead of inviting older people to the design table or including them in studies and conversations about things like driverless cars, technologists make assumptions about what those people want and need. This year, Li and his team found that older drivers, for example, want more information about how a driverless car system works, even while they’re in it. The participants in the study said things like, “I need the car to tell me what it is doing if I am not watching it, just basic information would do, like speed, journey time;” and, “I want to know that the vehicle knows, and I would like some kind of display that let[s] me know the vehicle knows it is very foggy.” Collecting more feedback like this would lead to better designs for cars, pill boxes, and apps. It would also help technologists understand just how useful a new product category might really be.

For the time being, though, the driverless-car startups have pushed ahead on autopilot. Where they do draw on seniors’ help, the engagement isn’t always so direct: Some companies use retirement communities as testing grounds for their new technology. That’s not necessarily because older drivers will be best served by its current iteration but rather because those communities happen to provide walled-off and well-controlled environments for pilot projects. In a place like the Villages in Central Florida, where senior residents like to get around on golf carts, there are far fewer obstacles of the sort that would make it so a human driver has to seize control. That’s very helpful for the cars’ designers—it’s like training wheels for their technology. It’s too bad the local residents may not live long enough to see the wonders they’ve been promised.

Updated 12-6-19, 5 pm EST: This story was updated to provide the accurate effect of age on drivers’ reaction time: It goes up, not down. A description of development Levels 3 and 4 for driverless cars has also been corrected to reflect the fact that human intervention is not required for the latter.

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