Voyage Tests Self-Driving Cars in Retirement Communities

The startup was spun out of online learning company Udacity.

Luke Beard—© 2017 Luke Beard

Udacity offers an online course in self-driving cars, but company officials apparently got sick of just teaching people about this new technology. A new Udacity spinoff called Voyage is now building its own prototype self-driving cars—and it found a novel place to test them.

Voyage's self-driving cars are operating not on highways or city streets, but within the confines of a retirement community in San Jose, California, according to The New York Times. This lets engineers work out bugs in a less challenging environment, and brings self-driving cars to a group of people who could really benefit from them.

The test cars are modified Ford Fusions, and their test track is The Villages, a retirement community with 4,000 residents whose average age is 76. The site is gated, and has about 15 miles of roads with a speed limit of 25 mph. The closed-off environment and low speed limits make things easier for self-driving cars, but an array of pedestrians and golf carts provide a lesson in sharing the road with other users.

While much of the discussion of self-driving cars seems to center around daily commuters, the technology could have a more significant impact for retirees. Elderly people who lose the ability to drive can become isolated, and not being to get around by themselves can make life more complicated. However, society will have to grapple with the question of whether it is acceptable to put someone in a vehicle when they are physically incapable of controlling it.

California is one of a handful of states that allows testing of self-driving cars on public roads, and companies like Waymo, Apple, and General Motors' Cruise Automation subsidiary are taking advantage of that. But by testing on private property, Voyage doesn't have to deal with as many regulations. Granted, it does have to carry double California's mandatory $5 million insurance coverage, and it has to share data with its insurer.

Voyage may have come up with a different way to test self-driving cars, but it will ultimately have to compete with numerous other startups, established tech companies, and automakers to commercialize the technology. Many of Voyage's competitors have a major head start, so it's unclear how this new player will fit into the greater self-driving car picture.