Shabnam Haghzare
"For people with dementia, they get excited at the prospect of automated vehicles because they've been so deeply affected by giving up their driver's licence," says PhD candidate Shabnam Haghzare. (Photo: AGE-WELL)

Dr. Jennifer Campos and Shabnam Haghzare are determined to make a difference in the lives of people with dementia – and they believe automated vehicles may hold the key.

When someone's driver's licence is taken away due to dementia, it can be devastating.

Dr. Campos, a scientist at The Kite Research Institute at UHN, and Haghzare, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, want to understand how automated vehicle technologies could allow people with dementia to continue driving for as long as it is safely possible.

Their team recently received a three-year grant from AGE-WELL, a federally-funded Network of Centres of Excellence hosted at UHN, to explore the safe use and acceptance of automated vehicles by people with dementia.

AGE-WELL's goal is to enhance quality of life for older adults and caregivers through technology.

"With road-safety on one side and serious consequences of driving cessation for individuals on the other, driving cessation is one of the most challenging issues in dementia," explains Dr. Campos, who is principal investigator.

The results of the project will be instrumental in clarifying whether automated vehicles may be a safe and acceptable way to delay the need to stop driving completely by people with dementia.

The first-of-its-kind project makes use of DriverLab, Toronto Rehab's state-of-the-art driving simulator. People can use it to experience operating an autonomous vehicle firsthand in an entirely safe way.

Dr. Jenny Campos
Dr. Jennifer Campos wants to understand how automated vehicle technologies would allow people with dementia to continue driving for as long as it is safely possible. (Photo: UHN)

Dr. Campos' project is one of 22 newly-funded three-year research projects that were just announced by AGE-WELL. The total investment of more than $10-million will advance Canadian research that leverages technology to address the needs and challenges of older adults and their caregivers.

The team has already learned a lot about the attitudes of healthy older adults towards automated vehicles, which operate with varying levels of automated control. In an earlier phase of research, also funded by AGE-WELL, they interviewed healthy older adults to understand whether or not automated vehicles were an option they would consider.

"We asked each participant about their perceptions before and after their simulated automated driving experience, which gave us a much more contextualized response," says Dr. Campos, who is also Associate Director – Academic at Kite.

The findings showed that most healthy older adults were generally accepting of the technology (with age and driving style of older adults playing a role in the level of this acceptance). Their acceptance was not significantly impacted by simulated challenging driving conditions, such as rain or traffic.

Testing ideas with people with dementia and their caregivers

The team took what they learned and is now investigating what this technology could mean for people with dementia. By interviewing people with dementia and caregivers, they are delving into their perceptions of automated vehicles and whether this could help delay driving cessation safely.

"For people with dementia, they get excited at the prospect of automated vehicles because they've been so deeply affected by giving up their driver's licence," says Shabnam, who is leading the study.

"A great deal of literature ties driving cessation to a loss of independence and self."

A theme that continues to come up in interviews is that both individuals with dementia and caregivers are worried about the appropriate response to a system failure, says Shabnam, an AGE-WELL trainee. "This confirms our research team’s concern, which we are addressing in the third phase of our research."

The interviews dig into opinions about partially-automated and fully-automated vehicles – as well as considerations such as the cognitive ability to manage end-to-end logistics (i.e., getting in the right car) or to respond to system failure.

The DriverLab advantage to test performance safely

The team, which includes AGE-WELL trainees Ghazaleh Delfi, Erica Dove and Hodan Mohamud, has concurrently launched the experiential phase of the study for people with dementia using DriverLab. Results will reveal whether partially-autonomous vehicles are more of a risk or benefit to people with dementia and how these risks can be addressed.

With system failure a major concern, the "takeover response" is one of the main driving performance factors being examined.

"The driver has to be prepared to take over the vehicle at any given moment and the problem there is if you're in a vehicle that is essentially driving itself your situational awareness is going to be very poor," explains Dr. Campos.

As the project progresses, many important design considerations, such as the best type of takeover alert, will need to be studied to ensure people with dementia can benefit from the technology and use it safely.

Other collaborators on the project are Dr. Gary Naglie, Dr. Mark Rapoport and Elaine Stasiulis.

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