Molly Jackson, an 82-year-old retired nurse, was sitting in the back seat of a self-driving taxi when the vehicle jerked to a halt at a crossing as its computer vision spotted an approaching golf cart.
When the vehicle, a modified Ford Fusion developed by a start-up named Voyage, started to inch forward, it abruptly stopped again as the golfers pressed ahead and cut in front of the car.
Ms. Jackson seemed unfazed by the bumpy ride. As a longtime resident of the Villages Golf and Country Club, a retirement community in San Jose, Calif., she knew all about aggressive golf cart drivers.
“I like that; we made a good stop there,” Ms. Jackson said. “I stop for them. They say we don’t have to, but I do.”
Voyage is starting to expand its driverless taxi service beyond a small test in the Villages, a gated community of about 4,000 residents where the average age is 76. Retirement communities, with their tightly controlled roads, can be an ideal proving ground for autonomous vehicles.
In the Villages, there are 15 miles of roads where autonomous vehicles can learn how to navigate other cars, pedestrians, golf carts, animals, roundabouts and many other obstacles.
The speed limit, just 25 miles an hour, helps reduce the risk if something goes wrong. And because it is private property, the company does not have to share ride information with regulators and it can try new ideas without as much red tape.
Cars that can drive themselves could be a great benefit to older people. Residents at the Villages say that once people stop driving, they often pull back from activities and interacting with friends.
Ms. Jackson, who has lived here for three decades, was one of Voyage’s first test passengers. For now, the company is limiting rides in two driverless cars (with a third arriving in two weeks) to a busy, two-mile loop. A person stays in the driver’s seat in case something goes awry. And the plan is for any Village resident to be able to summon one of Voyage’s cars through a smartphone app for free door-to-door service.
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