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Business Clinic – Driverless vehicles
Revolutionising mobility for older people

When it comes to ensuring older people maintain their independence and freedom of choice, it’s clear that innovation in technology is going to play a vital part. Could driverless vehicles be the concept that brings this to fruition?

A £5.5m project run by a multi-sector consortium of organisations and known as Flourish, is attempting to revolutionise mobility for older people by reducing loneliness and helping them to maintain a healthy level of independence.

The project has culminated with a demonstration at the St Monica Trust’s Cote Lane retirement village, where residents experienced a journey in an Aurrigo Pod Zero, a first production line model of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs).

Connected vehicles have the potential to revolutionise the way people travel; enabling traffic management systems to safely optimise traffic flow in real time, easing congestion and improving air quality.

Taking it one step further, the findings from the Flourish project are also helping to future-proof infrastructure and make transport more inclusive.

Creative collaboration

Participants from across the UK were involved in the co-design process, through workshops and a series of simulator and live pod trials, conducted by the The University of the West of England (UWE), Cardiff University, Connected Places Catapult, Designability and Traverse.
Age UK was also a key Flourish partner, providing broader insights into the lives of older people and the mobility challenges they face.

The research has been supported by Bristol City Council and South Gloucestershire Council.
It has found that older people have an acceptance of these vehicles and that they wish for the cars to become commonplace so that they can have freedom in the future to plan days out, pick up their grandchildren as well as run day-to-day errands.

The demonstration

Sara Naylor-Wild, Director of Development and Research at St Monica Trust said, ‘We have a long-standing relationships with UWE Bristol, especially around technology and assisted living.

‘When we were given the opportunity to host this demonstration it was a no brainer for us, our residents are open to new technologies and they certainly rose to the challenge.

‘The demonstration has been thrilling, it’s such an exciting opportunity and the residents have met it with such enthusiasm.’

The physical demonstration lasted around 10 minutes before residents were invited to give feedback on their experience. Their thoughts and ideas, plus how they feel this technology can benefit them, will always remain central to this project.

A safety ‘driver’ accompanied up to three participants at a time on a planned journey around the site.

Human machine interface

An important part of the Flourish project was to study how older people interact with and operate vehicles using a human machine interface (HMI) and adapting this interface to allow for impaired vision, loss of hearing, restricted mobility, poor movement control and issues with balance and difficulties with speech, memory and attention.

Looking at this in more detail, the team behind the project will develop a standardised assessment framework that will help determine the individualised adaptations needed for older people and those with disabilities to introduce these vehicles into their everyday lives.

Next steps

The Flourish project concluded in May 2019 and the full results from the simulator and pod trials will be released over the coming months. As CAVs continue to be developed and deployed, it will be important for the findings of Flourish to be used to ensure that the technology is fit for purpose.

Dr Chris Alford, Associate Professor in Applied Psychology at UWE Bristol said, ‘This was a perfect way to conclude the Flourish project – with a demonstration of how pods could be used to transport older people, and those with limited mobility, within their home environment.

‘Our project team has been able to gather a high quantity of useful feedback from St Monica Trust residents, offering a valuable insight into how older people might feel about the concept of driverless vehicles and the types of user interfaces that might work best for them.

‘Flourish is unique in being focused on older people, who will be among the first to benefit from the private and community availability of driverless transport. The project has shown that driverless vehicles have the potential to keep older people engaged in their communities and in touch with their family and friends.’

As the CAV sector continues to develop, the findings from the Flourish project can be used to ensure that this innovative technology is deployed efficiently and safely for the benefit of older people and those with a disability.

Indeed, there may not be long to wait for this; it is anticipated the pods could be in operation on enclosed campuses like retirement villages within five to 10 years. CMM

Over to the experts…

What are the considerations when looking at this technology? Do you think smaller organisations would be able to utilise CAVs? What could be the challenges of implementing this? How might this be integrated into wider society?

An innovative initiative

I am delighted that St Monica Trust has taken a lead in this pilot to enable greater understanding of how driverless cars can support living well in older age. The recent CQC State of Care report outlined the importance of innovation in social care, and recognised the need for the sector to be positively embracing the opportunities that new technology offers.
Driverless cars are definitely part of the future agenda, however, like all new forms of technology that will feature in the care sector, it is absolutely critical that the technology is seen as an enabler rather than – excuse the pun – the driver!

I recently attended the launch of an interesting report by doteveryone, entitled Better care in the Age of Automation, which included a fascinating film featuring driverless cars delivering homecare workers to individuals’ homes. Whether driverless cars do or don’t feature in the provision of care in this way, the reality is that the mass market for driverless vehicles will be in the field of logistics, and the human factor of what they might do to liberate and empower individuals to live more independent and fulfilling lives is likely to be an after thought for designers.

It is essential that we use the evidence generated by Flourish to show that there could be a substantial and sustainable market for CAVs made up of people who are older or have a disability.

However, in order to access that population, the manufacturers must include considerations about full accessibility requirements within the vehicles, alongside the features that will be important to a logistics focused market interested in the secure drop off of goods and supplies.

Vic Rayner Executive Director, National Care Forum


Older people are more than ready for this

Being a child of the mid-20th century, I’ve become used to the impossible of ‘Tomorrows World’ becoming the every day reality. Think Alexa, sat navs, smartphones.

As a kid ‘video calling’ was restricted to the far-off future as hinted by Star Trek and Blake 7. So I may be forgiven for feeling that driverless vehicles are an inevitable reality.

Personally, I hate driving, so for me the ability to jump into my automatic car and promptly nod off, as it whisks me to my destination is something to look forward to.

As is often the case, what might be good for one group of people, in this case older people by helping to maintain independence and enabling engagement with friends and community, may actually turn out to be good for us all. They may bring some order to our roads. No more speeding, cutting up or careless manoeuvres.

I’ve occasionally reflected, whilst my white knuckled hands grip the steering wheel as I head over the Pennines on the M62, that – like tobacco – if driving was invented today it would be banned as a far too dangerous activity.

One thing puzzles me though. When will we shake off the thing about older people being somehow reluctant to embrace technology and change?

Dealing with the relentless technological development has become part of all our lives for several decades now.

When computers began to be mainstream in the mid 1980s someone my age back then would now be in their 90s. Personally, I’m looking forward to the flying car. Or even more so to the Teleport!

John Kennedy Independent Social Care Consultant

Shouldn’t replace human social interaction

This is a really exciting proposition and we’d be very interested in seeing how this pilot performs and in monitoring how the technology develops.

At Richmond Villages, we are committed to building beautiful living environments for retirees and, as such, are always keen to keep abreast of the latest technologies that have the potential of making our residents, lives easier.

Independence is a key consideration for many of those living with us or who are thinking about living with us. Those we meet fear the loss of their independence and also the right to make spontaneous choices and decisions about how they would like to spend their time.

As such, with a percentage of older people having to give up their licenses due to health issues, this technology has the potential of giving them a little bit of freedom back. Being able to pop into a driverless car and feel as if the world is their oyster that particular day is a feeling which will be indescribable to some.

There are of course lots of other considerations, including the safety for both those using the vehicles and the logistics of having them on site.

Another key factor is that we know that human contact and social interaction is very important to the older generation and so removing that during everyday tasks, such as being driven to the shops could pose problems.

It’s a very forward-thinking idea so, while we’re probably a way off adopting this technology, it’s certainly one we’ll be following with interest.

Innovative technology is going to be key in pushing positive change in the sector so this idea is encouraging.

Philippa Fieldhouse Managing Director, Richmond Villages

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