Driverless Taxis for Elderly Lack Humane Element

 In autonomous driving, Car Safety Features, driverless cars, Seniors and cars, Vehicle Safety

It was hard for my mother to give up her driver’s license at age 92. But her small community in Massachusetts had a taxi service, supported by the city, to take her wherever she wanted to go in town for 25 cents. I remember her consciously collecting quarters that would take her to the grocery store, the library, or the department store.

The service had another benefit. Human contact.

To arrange for a pickup, she would call the dispatcher. Together, they would map out a travel plan. When the minivan arrived curbside, the driver would open the door and offer her a hand. Not too much aid, just enough to ensure that my mother was safely settled into her seat. For a woman who cherished her independence and lived alone, this was a nice touch, literally.

New Service in Sun City

A new company, May Mobility, is now piloting a driverless taxi service in Sun City, Arizona. Seniors in that 55 and older community can hail the vehicles through an app or by calling a dispatcher. May Mobility does not charge riders, but instead has a contract with the city to provide free rides on demand to select locations.

The company uses the Toyota Sienna minivan, originally designed for and marketed to families for hauling soccer and T-ball teams. The vans have been re-purposed to robotically shuttle seniors to medical appointments, recreational centers, and shopping malls.

Sounds like my mother’s service in Massachusetts, just without the human touch.

Out of Touch

This new service reminds me of my former life as an engineering professor. Over my 22-year career, I took part in extensive debates about the course requirements of engineering students. How could we prepare these students for careers in technology, while also helping them become informed citizens?

The outcome was typically to increase the number of engineering courses, at the expense of more general studies courses, such as literature, history, anthropology, and psychology. While engineering courses teach students how to build new devices, humanities courses develop a student’s critical thinking.

Humanities challenge students to consider such questions as: Is this right? Should we do this? What are the consequences? In other words, a well-rounded education helps the next generation of inventors to see the bigger picture.

May Mobility has a vision to become the first autonomous vehicle company to make a profit. Their literature spouts the innovation of their algorithms. Their solution is superior to all others.

But, I’m left wondering if their leaders loaded up on computer programming courses and skipped those humanity courses. The result? A solution that isn’t humane.

(This blog appeared as an opinion piece in Ahwatukee Foothill News.)


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