Older drivers too slow? Not so, new research suggests

Seniors are every bit as quick as young people when reassuming control of a semi-autonomous automobile, a new study has found.

Many of us don't have the cat-like reflexes we did during our youth. However, a new study suggests that older people's reaction times compared to younger individuals are virtually indistinguishable when it comes to taking control of a self-driving automobile.

As the government has acknowledged, it isn't a matter of if autonomous cars will become available, it's when, with some speculating they'll be on the consumer market within five years. It may be longer than that for the availability of fully autonomous vehicles, in which motorists are free to multitask without the risk of causing an accident.

Some believe  this puts the nation's older drivers at a distinct disadvantage, as they may not be able to react in time to establish control of a car's semi-autonomous features should there be a malfunction or if circumstances develop requiring them to take over.

Research out of North Carolina State University suggests otherwise, after the study's principal investigators observed participants using driving simulators that had semi-autonomous functions. During the test, each person was made aware that they would have to take over at some point, but when that happened varied.

'As quick as younger drivers'

Analysts determined that when drivers responded to the cues requiring them to establish control, older motorists "were as quick as younger drivers," and were even more timely in some scenarios. The biggest difference in reactions was the degree to which participants applied the brakes, with the older tending to engage them more heavily by comparison.

Jing Feng, the study's senior author and assistant professor of psychology at NC State, said that this could increase older people's risk of a collision, however, "both age groups were capable of taking over the vehicle in a safe and timely way."

As to the ages of the participants involved in the study, the younger group ranged between 18 and 35, while the older were 62 to 81. Thirty-five motorists in total took part, 18 of them seniors citizens and 17 millennials.

The full details of the study, titled "Age Differences in the Takeover of Vehicle Control and Engagement in Non-driving-related Activities in Simulated Driving with Conditional Automation," are found in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention. The report's abstract is also available online.

Tesla adding fail-safes to autonomous vehicle

These findings come on the heels of an episode earlier this year, in which a motorist driving a semi-autonomous Tesla Model S was killed in a collision when some of the electronic features malfunctioned. An investigation into the matter determined that the driver wasn't paying attention at the time of the crash and the outcome was avoidable had he re-established control.

Tesla Motors recently announced a software update to the Model S' autopilot system, where if a motorist takes his or her hands off the wheel, the automatic steering will disable, The Associated Press reported. Before this happens, though, drivers will be alerted via the onboard warning system no fewer than three times before coming to a gradual stop if the alerts go unheeded.