Autonomous cars may one day be the answer to all our vehicle transportation needs, including for disabled persons, visually impaired people, and older Americans. But although autonomous trucks are just around the corner, as I wrote last week, autonomous cars are years away from widespread use on our roads.
The nonprofit Independent Transportation Network of America (ITNAmerica), founded in 1995, has developed a ride-share program for seniors and visually impaired people. With partners in almost 100 locations all over the country, it offers arm-through-arm, door-through-door rides. (Full disclosure: I am an unpaid board member of ITNAmerica.)
America needs to develop solutions to driving accessibility today, so that people who can’t drive will still be able to travel easily in cars. In addition, as Congress funds better infrastructure, America needs to protect, to augment, and to strengthen GPS systems so that drivers don’t lose signal or get hacked or spoofed.
Personal mobility cannot wait for the deployment of autonomous cars. Ride-share companies such as Uber
Seniors are the fastest-growing demographic in the United States. Over the past ten years, the 65-plus age group grew by 34 percent, according to the Census Bureau. At least 20 percent of residents in Maine, Florida, West Virginia, and Vermont are 65 or older.
The vast majority of seniors are careful drivers with excellent driving records. However, society needs to make it easy for the small share who are poor drivers to get off the road. For seniors, giving up a car means giving up independence, work, valuable activities, and sometimes a social life. That leads some seniors to continue to drive long after they should quit.
ITNAmerica, the only national nonprofit to focus on transportation for seniors, was founded by Katherine Freund, whose son at age 3 was badly injured by an 84-year old driver.
“Twenty-five percent of seniors who join ITNAmerica do not give up driving completely,” Freund told me. “They need an alternative when they want to travel at high-risk times such as at night or in dangerous weather.” The model enables them to make a gradual, safe transition from driving all the time to not driving at all. People think of driving as all or nothing, but in reality there is a wide range in between.
Seniors who no longer want to use their cars can trade them in on CarTrade for ride credits with an ITNAmerica affiliate. Each ride on average costs between $6 and $12—except for rides to eye doctor appointments, which are fully funded by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. Regeneron has funded a website, RidesInSight, to connect seniors with rides.
Now ITNAmerica is expanding throughout the country, investing in proprietary software, and moving to the Salesforce platform to enable scaling to additional communities. The routing algorithms were developed and donated by Esri, a developer of geographic information software.
ITNAmerica and other affiliates use volunteers and paid drivers. Volunteers often drive the same people and consequently make friends. Paid drivers, who are part-time employees, often recently retired, supplement the volunteers.
All drivers have background checks and training. They learn how to fold up wheelchairs to get them into a car and how to guide someone with a visual impairment.
Volunteers use their own car insurance. At the urging of ITNAmerica, many states have passed laws making it illegal for insurance companies to drop volunteer drivers. Paid drivers use vehicles owned and insured by affiliates.
Last month ITNPortland, an affiliate in Portland, Maine, was astounded to find out that Evelyn, a rider who didn’t have any children, had left ITNPortland her entire estate. After selling her home and paying off debts, the bequest amounted to $165,000—a substantial amount to a state nonprofit whose budget is approximately $200,000 per year.
Evelyn started riding with ITNPortland in 2011, and volunteers drove her to doctors’ appointments and for a weekly grocery run. Her regular driver, Morgan Jameson, now acting executive director of ITNPortland, told me, “Evelyn was very friendly and always happy to talk about the history of Portland and what used to be in the different buildings.”
Autonomous cars for personal use will be revolutionary when they arrive. Until then, seniors, our fastest-growing demographic, need alternatives for personal mobility. Many are fortunate to be able to use ITNAmerica’s technology and services.