Self-driving vehicles have the potential to make immobility among elderly people and those with disabilities a thing of the past, experts say.
Declining vision and other physical impairments will no longer inhibit people from going out to eat or visiting their favorite stores, the experts say.
In the meantime, companies such as Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, Ford and Toyota are laying the foundation for this future with adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, automatic braking and other semiautonomous functions that could benefit still-mobile seniors.
"The systems that we have on our cars now that are more and more common -- backup aids, parking aids -- are building blocks toward automated driving," says Kristopher Spencer, a GM advanced technology spokesman. "We're going to see continuous acceleration of innovative driving systems coming to market."
For instance, the 2014 Chevrolet Impala offers a crash-imminent braking system that uses radar to detect crash threats and alert drivers. If the driver doesn't react quickly enough, the system stops the vehicle automatically.
The 2013 Toyota Camry and Avalon can help aging drivers who are less flexible than they once were with blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert -- a function that sounds a warning tone when it senses an approaching car coming from the left or right rear while the driver is backing up at less than 5 mph.
These technologies will enhance driving for all age groups, automakers say, but older drivers who tend to have more disposable income often will be the first to get them, says Joe Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab. The lab researches how drivers across age groups react to new vehicle technology, including semiautonomous systems.
In 2011, the share of new-vehicle buyers ages 65 to 74 rose 4 percentage points from 2007 to 13 percent of all purchasers, according to R.L. Polk data cited in a University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study.
New-vehicle buyers in the 55-64 age group made up 23 percent. The biggest group, those ages 45 to 54, accounted for 26 percent of new-vehicle purchasers.
But even though the share of older new-vehicle buyers is increasing, don't expect marketing campaigns touting semiautonomous features aimed at older consumers, Coughlin says. One way to mangle the appeal of any good design, he says, is to define it as an "old man's car" because the young and old alike will stay away.
"Really, what we want to do is define these technologies as easy, safe and convenient. These are ageless values that the older adult market will gravitate to without the sign out front saying this car was built for you," Coughlin says.