Driverless Cars Finding New Lane in Home-Based Care

A decade from now, there will be more people older than 65, more home-based care offerings than ever — and likely more self-driving cars out on the roads.

And believe it or not, driverless cars — or autonomous vehicles — will make their mark on the home-based care space, just as they’ll affect shipping, retail and most other industries. As the unavoidable issues that come with a rapidly aging population continue to arise, future-facing technology companies will be waiting in line for their shot at solving them.

Ride-hailing giants Uber (NYSE: UBER) and Lyft (Nasdaq: LYFT) formed their own health care branches and have already entered into the home-based care market through partnerships with 24 Hour Home Care, Right At Home, Homewatch CareGivers, among others. They did so because they specifically recognized the growing opportunity within home-based care.

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Uber and Lyft just so happen to be two of the companies in the driverless-cars arms race that’s now fully underway.

Nuro, a Santa Clara, California-based robotics company, recently made national news when it received clearance from the federal government to deploy no more than 5,000 of its R2 vehicles on U.S. public roadways. One of the exemptions afforded to Nuro was new: The federal government allowed the company to do away with requirements that did not make sense for a driverless vehicle, such as side-view mirrors and a windshield.

Nuro’s vehicles won’t be toting passengers, but they will be interacting with consumers. The company will be making mostly food deliveries in the immediate future, with current partners that include grocery chain Kroger, retail powerhouse Walmart (NYSE: WMT) and pizza franchise Domino’s.

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Finding creative ways to enter the health care space is something Nuro is actively considering, Dan Mitchell, the company’s head of product operations and community engagement, told Home Health Care News.

“A huge area that we hope to grow into is delivery of medication, whether it’s prescription or just over the counter,” Mitchell said. “We are exploring partnerships with a number of providers that could provide that type of service in the near future.”

That’s just one potential health care application for Nuro. Even so, it’s easy to imagine how that could be of use to a home health provider or home care agency.

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In some ways, autonomous vehicles are already here, at least from a supplies perspective. In terms of vehicles that will actually ride with passengers, those aren’t far away either, Dr. Kara Kockelman, an expert in the field, told HHCN.

“It depends on which road you’re talking about — is it a low speed road, is it a high speed road? Is it in Mountain View, California or Waco, Texas?” said Kockelman, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas. “You might get picked up by one in San Francisco in five years … .[Otherwise], it’ll probably be 10 years before a lot of major U.S. cities have some in the fleet.”

The home care connection

24 Hour Home Care was one of the first home care companies to pair with Lyft, recognizing early on how such a partnership could be beneficial. As others began doing the same, providers started seeing two clear benefits.

Working with Lyft and Uber give providers more insight regarding when and where their clients are picked up or dropped off. In addition, being able to coordinate rides for caregivers means less liability and fewer hassles.

Los Angeles-based 24 Hour Home Care — formerly branded as 24Hr HomeCare — provides professional caregiving services to older adults and individuals with developmental disabilities. The company, which serves parts of California, Texas and Arizona, delivered over 4.1 million hours of care in 2019.

While it hasn’t dedicated efforts to driverless cars yet, it is on the company’s radar, Gavin Ward, 24 Hour Home Care’s regional director of strategy and partnerships, told HHCN.

The autonomous-vehicles phenomenon may seem like a far-fetched science-fiction concept, but there’s a legitimate chance of it impacting providers sooner rather than later, Ward said.

“What I think it’s going to help with is two-fold — and I think one’s going to be faster than the other,” Ward said. “Getting the buy-in of the older adult, getting the buy-in of billion-dollar health systems is going to be slow for that piece of what we do … . I think the initial adoption is going to come with our workforce and companies using autonomous vehicles for their workforce before their actual clientele.”

In other words, adoption from older adults receiving in-home care may be more gradual. But for agency workers, a lot of whom have already adopted Uber or Lyft to expedite their rides, the driverless cars could be an even safer and more efficient way of commuting to and from work sites.

Another perk: having a driverless car frees up caregivers to spend transportation time reviewing care plans and preparing for their next visit.

“Home care companies will adopt it,” Ward said.

The issue will be getting all of the accompanying parties on board.

Health systems have started to come around on Uber and Lyft as pickup options. Despite the advantages of those models, top-down adoption can sometimes be a long process.

“We have prospective hospital partners whose case management and social work teams are eager to use our program,” Ward said. “But they still have legal teams and leadership who would rather use a taxi. It’s the bureaucracy of the health care system, and the risk that’s involved with the new technology that’s going to be slow to adopt. That’s my belief.”

The benefits that home care agencies could gain from access to autonomous vehicles, however, is undeniable.

“The caregiver workforce — based on their wages — don’t always have their own reliable vehicle at all times,” Ward said. “Oftentimes in our industry, clients are demanding that a caregiver have a vehicle to take them around or to take groceries. What happens with home care agencies is they’re not always able to staff the best fit to a client. Because the best caregiver fit may not have that vehicle at all times, and so instead the caregiving agency will staff a caregiver that maybe is not the best fit but has [the ability to get there].”

Mobilizing the elderly

One of the alleged perks that driverless car advocates have long been teasing is their potential to further liberate the elderly. Nuro has already seen anecdotal evidence of its vehicles keeping the right people behind the wheel — and the wrong people away from it.

“I do think it will unlock a lot of additional activity for [elderly people],” Kockelman said. “But a lot of activity for them might be two more rides per week or something, and it’s not going to cripple the road network.”

Unlocking that ability will also be good for entire neighborhoods in the end.

“Older people can be a risk for themselves, [but also for] other road users or even just pedestrians in the community,” Mitchell said. “We saw that people were really appreciative of the delivery service because they knew that older person down the street probably shouldn’t be driving anymore, but they needed to get out to get their groceries on a weekly basis. With the application of autonomous technology as well as the electric vehicle that we’re using, we can really lower the cost of deliveries to a much more affordable level.”

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