Why Retirement Communities Are Perfect for Self-Driving Cars

By Oliver Cameron

Voyage rider Molly Jackson, The Villages

At Voyage, we believe that retirement communities are the perfect first location for truly driverless cars. Given recent news in the industry, these communities might be some of the only places to support fully autonomous driving for some time.

Simpler, slower environments complement the current state of autonomous vehicles. What’s more, millions of senior citizens who live in retirement communities need better transportation options today, accelerating adoption of the technology.

Because we believe that starting simpler and slower is the right approach, Voyage has secured an exclusive, multi-year license to deploy an autonomous ride-sharing service at The Villages, the largest retirement community in the world. This is our focus.

The public sentiment toward self-driving cars is one of confusion. In a given week, you may read that truly self-driving cars will be here in 6 months. The next article claims they are decades away. The truth is complicated, and heavily dependent on the approach.

As the CEO of Voyage, I can only speculate about the strategy of other self-driving car companies. What I can share is how Voyage approaches building self-driving cars, and why we believe our approach is the winning one in a crowded field.

Simply put, Voyage brought our self-driving car technology to market following a few simple rules:

  • Deploy self-driving cars in simpler, slower environments.
  • Solve meaningful transportation problems that impact large groups of people.
  • Optimize for autonomous safety and performance over cost.
“Your market entry strategy is often different from your market disruption. Start where you find a gap in the market and push your way through.” — Vinod Khosla

The operational environment is the single biggest factor in determining the development timeline of a self-driving car. The environment dictates every key technical challenge, most importantly in terms of speed and complexity.

The Firefly (RIP)

In 2015, Waymo was the first to demonstrate a fully driverless trip, offering Steve Mahan a ride in Austin, TX. They did so in a purpose-built vehicle, nicknamed Firefly.

Classified as a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, the Firefly was speed-limited to 25MPH and restricted to calmer roadway. This approach gave Waymo the confidence to offer a truly driverless ride with their technology in 2015. We took Waymo’s Firefly approach to heart. Although we never aspired to build our own car, we sought to deploy our self-driving cars in simpler, slower communities that provided the same net effect as the Firefly.

When you visit a retirement community, you step into a different world-a simpler, slower, and calmer world. It’s a surreal feeling that you have to experience for yourself, but I bet you’d leave thinking they’re perfect for self-driving cars.

Within a typical retirement community, you’re often speed-limited to 20MPH, and although you will definitely encounter a variety of cars and pedestrians, it’s infinitely less chaotic than your typical city or suburb. I liken the driving to listening to a podcast at 0.75x speed. The roadway itself is easier to navigate, thanks to simpler traffic patterns and incredible maintenance. You can drive for miles and avoid complex lane merges-or even traffic lights! In other words, a self-driving car’s dream.

Even with all of these constraints, there’s so much to do and see at a retirement community. With over 300 daily events going on at The Villages, countless grocery stores, movie theaters, community centers and more, there’s a lot of activities that necessitate access to a car.

Our belief is that, with simpler and slower conditions in retirement communities, a truly driverless car is a solvable problem on a timeline sooner than many might think. However, that alone would be a pointless exercise if there were no hard problems to solve or business opportunity.

Voyage rider Bev Clifford, The Villages

Today’s car is built for the average driver. The average driver can demonstrate reasonable reflexes, agility and vision. However, as we age, our reflexes, agility and vision begin to suffer. When they do, the confidence we once felt while driving quickly disappears. This can be incredibly debilitating.

As driving becomes a struggle, many senior citizens are left with two unattractive options: find an alternative form of transportation, or stay home. While you or I may be familiar with calling an Uber from time-to-time for convenience, some seniors have to search for alternative transportation every single day.

“Among the users of this service are so many elderly in The Villages who cannot drive anymore. They need convenient, reliable, and safe transportation to doctor’s appointments, grocery stores, and, of course all the amenities in The Villages. To be a part of the launch of such a project is such a privilege.” – A Villages Resident
CCTV from a retirement community

Eventually, it may be time to give up driving altogether. But, without good alternatives, many seniors are understandably reluctant to give up car ownership. Car ownership is synonymous with freedom, and many hang on to driving, even if their senses aren’t what they used to be.

What’s more, seniors have a higher disability rate than non-seniors. Of our 47 million seniors in the US, 35.2% reported a disability compared with 10.6% of those between 18 and 64 years old. The amount of transportation friction a typical senior citizen experiences in a single day is impossible for many of us to relate to.

“As we age, even though we may still be very active and alert, sometimes our senses are not as quick as they once were. I would like to have a convenient and safe way to travel throughout my hometown without the stress of having to guess what another driver might do on the streets.” – A Villages Resident

By 2060, more than 100 million Americans will be over 65. This is a huge market for self-driving cars. We must improve the transportation options available for senior citizens, and we think that our self-driving car will bring about the necessary safety, cost, and convenience benefits that this growing demographic so badly needs.

The Velodyne VLS-128

Self-driving cars will, one day, dramatically reduce the 1.2 million yearly roadway fatalities. Reducing this number is what motivates us to come to work every day. But, as more and more experimental self-driving cars are tested on public roads, there’s been an increase in public concern about autonomous technology.

Our belief is that by limiting speed and chaos, we are deploying self-driving cars the right way. When you drive slow, you can stop fast. What’s more, we haven’t built a fragile demo car, but a robust, fault-tolerant and technologically impressive self-driving car. We’ve also been careful not to overfit our technology to retirement communities, always designing our software to generalize to new and more complex environments.

There are a number of ways you can make your life easier in self-driving car development, and there’s none more pronounced than the sensor configuration. While some companies choose to optimize for sensor cost, at Voyage we instead focus on the shortest path to truly driverless.

12.6m points per second from our Lidars

Our sensor performance is incredible. In addition to 8 cameras, we have 5 Lidars on the vehicle scanning the world ten times a second. These Lidars boast 128 beams (high-density) and enable our vehicles to perceive objects 250 meters away. When you’re driving at 20MPH in a retirement community, these specifications equate to more than ample time to react and predict the correct action your self-driving car should take.

What’s more, our perception and decision making algorithms are designed to take advantage of these high density point-clouds. We’ve been able to achieve amazing performance with deep neural networks that fully utilize this advantage. We will be sharing more about this soon.

The trunk of our G2 self-driving car

Safety begins in your company culture, but requires deep integration within your technology to make it reality. We’ve invested an immense amount of energy into safety, because it’s our responsibility to deploy this technology correctly.

Here’s just some of the work we’ve done so far on safety:

  • Hardware-enforced limitations on speed and steering. Our autonomous stack is limited, via firmware, to a maximum speed we define.
  • Extensive fault injection testing to test real edge cases.
  • A deeply integrated diagnostics module that monitors our systems and vehicle for abnormalities and degradations, with the ability to trigger a safe stop on an independent system if necessary.
  • Monitoring on our compute and sensors for abnormalities in temperature and output. Heartbeat monitoring to ensure all systems are communicating properly.
  • Redundancy in key hardware, software and algorithms.
  • Redundant, server-grade compute, complete with air cooling and insane processing power.

We know that there is a lot to be done to ship a truly self-driving car, and our safety systems are at the very foundation of that.

Everyone at Voyage believes that limiting speed and chaos, solving meaningful transportation problems for real people, and ensuring that we optimize for autonomous safety and performance will yield a truly driverless car sooner than many think.

Although retirement communities like The Villages are the first place we’ve introduced our technology, they are not where we stop. We will continuously expand community-by-community until everyone is able to summon a safe, affordable self-driving car to their doorstep.

“I’m 96 years old, a WWII vet & resident of the Villages since 1989.
Since I was born around the same year as the first automobile, lived nearly a full lifetime before computers arrived, trained as a plane mechanic, worked as an auto mechanic, drove city busses for many years and retired as a dispatcher for the busses of Pittsburgh’s Port Authority Transit, this whole concept interests and thrills me. I would be honored to be considered for a ride in the Voyage self-driving taxi.” – A Villages Resident

P.S. We are always hiring for insanely talented engineers who want to contribute to our mission.