How our aging society is set to make mobility services more accessible
Old age might bring wisdom, but it certainly doesn’t improve our ability to drive. Eventually, we are all forced to stop, making it considerably trickier to move around. For this reason, developments in affordable autonomous vehicles (AVs) are promising, potentially transforming the mobility opportunities of our steadily aging populations.
To achieve this, smart mobility needs to become more accessible. Technology is often considered a young person’s game but when it comes to mobility services, it is older people that can benefit the most. As the demography of advanced economies becomes older, accessibility will be a crucial aspect of smart mobility services to come.
No scooters for old men
When we think of smart mobility such as e-scooters, we often have young urbanites in mind. One only needs to look at kickscooters as the dominant form of micromobility. When it comes to getting from A to B, though, it is actually senior citizens that could benefit most from a move towards service-based and autonomous forms of mobility. Up to now they have been widely neglected.
“Only a quarter of adults over 50 used ride-hailing services, like Uber or Lyft, compared to half when it comes to those aged 18–29”
This is explained, in part, by the fact that less older people are online. Only 65 percent of US citizens over 65 own a smartphone compared with 77 percent of the general population. And, those that do own a smartphone tend not to use many apps. This translates into fewer users of service-based mobility. When it comes to ridesharing, for instance, only a quarter of adults over 50 used ride-hailing services, like Uber or Lyft, compared to half when it comes to those aged 18–29. Nevertheless, like aging itself, changes are taking place with more and more older people becoming digitally active. With populations in advanced economies getting older, tech companies will need to adapt to this expanding market.
Accessibility is crucial
Although increased smartphone penetration will increase the numbers of seniors using mobility services, accessibility is also crucial. There are promising strides being made in this regard. Ridesharing operators, such as Uber and Lyft, are already striking deals with health providers and senior living facilities to provide rides directly through them rather than the individuals themselves. Uber Assist, for instance, also trains drivers in supporting those with special needs. Although this points the way towards more accessible services, it is also inhibitively expensive. Without state subsidies it would be difficult for individuals to afford this for everyday use.
This is why lightweight autonomous vehicles could well be the answer. Scooters, even those with seats, may not be the best option, but other vehicle types which offer space and stability could be. Take Renault’s EZ-POD for instance. Considered to be lightweight micromobility vehicles, their low speeds, small size and agility make them ideal for last-mile travel. Their ability to crawl up to the front door of buildings means they are suitable for those with limited mobility. Additionally, with a large door on the side the vehicles are easier to get in and out of, while their simple and spacious interior adds to their multipurpose benefits. What is more, they could also be shareable to lower costs.
Source: Groupe Renault
Another example is electric wheelchairs. The shared mobility provider Indigo Weel has teamed up with Toyota Tsusho to provide electric wheelchairs for rent via an app. Due to the high upfront costs of assisted mobility scooters and electric wheelchairs, this makes them more attainable for people that don’t want to buy one. Their very low speeds make them only suitable for very short distances, but combined with other transit modes, they could fill the gaps in last mile travel.
Source: Toyota Tsusho
Currently these are only available at certain locations such as designated car parks. This is, of course, fine for those with only limited physical disabilities, but for those with more serious mobility restrictions this isn’t the most practical. For this reason, autonomous wheelchairs could offer more in terms of accessibility. WHILL, based in Japan and a leader in the field, is addressing the market for assistive mobility by developing autonomous wheelchairs that enable airport passengers with limited mobility to move around airports independently. If this model could be moved into the city and wheelchairs booked to come to the user, this would considerably increase the travel options for those with more severe mobility restraints.
Source: Toyota Tsusho shows examples of different micromobility types, providing varying levels of accessibility.
Accessibility on the software side too
It is not just on the hardware side where accessibility can be improved. Mobility operators have a lot of work to do on the software side too. Like all tech products, providers need to offer user experiences that are better suited to the needs of older people. This means tailoring images and language to better fit this demographic, something that up to now has often been overlooked.
Alongside ease of use, another user experience aspect that is more specific to mobility is security. Elderly people often shy away from apps and are less likely to have multiple mobility apps on their smartphones (if they have one at all). This is partly to do with being less comfortable using them, but it is also down to greater concerns about privacy and security. Therefore, a single platform allowing users to access multiple mobility services all in one place would be an effective way of increasing use among elderly people.
Accessible = profitable
It is easy to view older people as passive recipients of technological change. However, like in other sectors such as health, their growing clout as consumers will likely shape the services of the future. As society ages and elderly people represent an ever more important mobility market, the development and supply of these vehicles could well reflect this. While we may not see armies of older people whizzing around on kickscooters any time soon, we could see mobility services that are designed with greater accessibility in mind.
“The mobility market will be ripe for old age disruption”.
By 2030, one in every eight will be aged 65 or over worldwide, and in developed regions such as Europe, as much as 25 percent of the population will be over 60 by that time. This, coupled with increased urbanization of older people, would make the mobility market ripe for old age disruption.
This shouldn’t be viewed simply in terms of economic opportunity, though. Improved door-to-door mobility services could transform the opportunities of older people by drastically increasing their independence. In this sense, advancements in mobility services may be the most important technological development for older people. Everyone has the right to move around freely. If this isn’t persuasive enough, however, operators can always consider their earnings. As elderly people become digitally savvy they will represent a huge market for door-to-door services. To avoid missing out on the boat (or mobility pod) operators will need to start putting more emphasis on accessibility. Who said mobility is a young person’s game?