Florence Swanson's winning artwork (Photo credit: Google)

New car designs are generally aimed at younger drivers, but the developers of self-driving cars are counting on older consumers as a prime market. The reason is simple: older people are more likely to have given up driving.

Life without a car is one thing if you live in New York City or San Francisco, but most seniors live in the suburbs where they're effectively stranded without being able to jump in the car and head for the nearest Starbucks or Walmart.

It's a hard transition for someone who's been behind the wheel for 50 or more years, but it's one that millions of older Americans will be facing over the next few decades. With 95.9 million drivers aged 50 and over already on U.S. highways and 10,000 hitting their 65th birthday every day, the senior market is growing faster than just about any other, and carmakers are taking note.

John Krafcik, chief executive officer of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, recently featured 96-year-old Florence Swanson in a presentation in Detroit. Swanson's painting of a guitar on the side of a Google car recently won a Google promotion in Austin and she is becoming something of the poster child for consumers who have "aged out" of driving.

“You haven’t lived until you get in one of those cars,” Swanson said after a half-hour ride in one of Google's autonomous cars, Bloomberg Business reported. “I couldn’t believe that the car could talk. I felt completely safe.”

Safer and more convenient

Besides Google, Ford and Toyota are actively pursuing seniors as a major market for the autonomous cars they're racing to develop. 

The problem for older drivers is simple: they're older and nothing works the way it used to. Failing vision, slower coordination, and other problems result in many seniors giving up their keys or losing their driver's licenses.

Besides restoring lost mobility, self-driving cars would offer a much-needed safety benefit to seniors. The U.S. Department of Transportation says drivers 85 and older have the highest fatal crash rates of any age group, mostly because they are more fragile than younger drivers.

An accident that a younger driver might walk away from could be fatal for an older driver who is more prone to injury or medical complications following an injury. 

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