New study examines older adults’ acceptance of self-driving technology as transportation option

Four people in front of shuttle
Rehabilitation science Ph.D. student Yuan Li, Dr. Sherrilene Classen and Beep staff Franchot Pean and Michelle Sanders pose with an autonomous shuttle.

Autonomous vehicles or self-driving technology could play an important role in helping older adults remain independent as they age. But will older adults embrace the use of self-driving vehicles?

To find out, University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions researchers and partners have launched a new study to understand older adults’ perceptions and experiences with an autonomous shuttle in four Florida communities.

The study is funded by the Florida Department of Transportation to support the goals of their program Safe Mobility for Life, which seeks to reduce the number of crashes and injuries among older adults while helping them maintain a safe connection to the community.

“Driving is a powerful facilitator to ensure that older adults fulfill their roles and activities in the community, such as going to the doctor, the hairdresser, places of worship or visiting grandchildren; but it’s also a very nice facilitator for continued independence and autonomy,” said the study’s lead investigator Sherrilene Classen, Ph.D., M.P.H., OTR/L, a UF PHHP professor and chair of the department of occupational therapy and director of UF’s Institute for Driving, Activity, Participation, and Technology. “Community mobility must adhere to the principle of equity, that is, to go where you want to go, with whom you want to go, and when you want to go, in a way that you are not dependent on anybody else. Autonomous ride-sharing services may just fulfill this principle of transportation equity.”

Team members also include co-principal investigator Carla VandeWeerd, Ph.D., professor and director of the University of Florida Health Precision Health Research Center-The Villages; and Beep Inc., an autonomous mobility provider based in Lake Nona, Florida.

“With this study, we are looking at futuristic alternative transportation options for older adults and their acceptance and adoption of the technology, specifically if they don’t want to drive, can no longer drive, or just want to spend travel time more productively, such as sitting and chatting with somebody in a shuttle instead of concentrating on driving,” Classen said.

Over the course of the project, researchers will enroll a total of 250 participants in The Villages, Port St. Lucie, Altamonte Springs, and Lake Nona before they ride in a multi-passenger driverless shuttle. Following their experience with the shuttle, participants will complete a post-assessment survey.

“This is the first study of its kind that is extending over multiple counties in the state of Florida, and we are looking at real-time, lived experiences of older adults as they engage with autonomous shuttles,” Classen said. “We won’t be just getting opinions via survey data, but also actual reported lived experiences, which is so much more powerful for helping researchers understand contextually relevant perceptions of older adults.”

Findings will guide policymakers as they consider offering autonomous vehicles as an alternative transportation option in Florida communities. Researchers also expect to gather data to help industry partners consider more optimal design features to benefit users. This may include, for example, how to best accommodate people who use wheelchairs, or people with age-related visual or auditory disabilities, or even those who have difficulty entering or exiting the shuttle as they carry bags of groceries.

“Beep continues to work with our autonomous vehicle industry partners to provide safe, reliable, and sustainable mobility service for the general public. We have engaged the socio-demographics of our passenger base, operators, customers, and communities to better understand what is important for the delivery of the next-generation vehicle,” said Mark Reid, Beep’s co-founder and senior vice president of public affairs.