With 125,000 residents, over 54,000 homes, 32 square miles, 750 miles of road, and three distinct downtowns, The Villages in Florida is one of the largest retirement communities in the US. It’s also been described as a raunchy, booze-filled boomtown for those who want to fill their twilight years line-dancing and no-strings-attached sex. And starting soon, it will have another distinction to brag about: a fleet of robot taxis.
Voyage, a startup that has been operating a handful of self-driving cars in the San Jose, Calif.-based retirement community also called The Villages, announced today that later this year it will expand to the much-larger Villages north of Orlando. This is thanks to a successful Series A fundraising round that raked in $20 million in 2017.
It’s an indication that, strangely enough, many of the first people to fully experience the possibilities presented by self-driving cars will be over the age of 55. Most experts agree that robot cars will first roll out as fleets of self-driving taxis in controlled environments — college campuses, business parks, dedicated freeway lanes, city centers, or retirement communities.
Self-driving startups get to boast about providing a real service for people in need, while seniors get to lord over their grandchildren about being early adopters of a bold new technology. They’re also getting something a little more valuable: Voyage is giving the owners of The Villages and the smaller San Jose development equity stakes of 0.3% and 0.2%, respectively, according to The Information.
It’s an interesting twist, especially when you consider that recent surveys indicate older Americans feel less comfortable with high levels of automated driving compared to their younger cohorts. Only 9 percent of Baby Boomers (ages 51-64) reported feeling confident enough to ride in a fully driverless vehicle, while 38 percent of Generation Z (ages 12-15) said they felt confident riding in a car without steering wheel or pedals, according to a 2016 poll by Kelley Blue Book.
Voyage’s self-driving cars aren’t fully driverless. Safety drivers will remain behind the wheel just in case there’s a need to intervene. And to compliment its digital mapping capabilities, the startup says it will partner with Carmera, a 3D mapmaker for autonomous vehicles. This type of partnership is necessary for what Voyage believes is “the largest deployment (by area size) of self-driving cars in the world.”
Voyage is a spin-off from Udacity, an online learning service that offers courses in driverless technology. Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron headed the startup’s open source self-driving project before launching his own venture. Sebastian Thrun, Udacity’s chairman and the founder of Google’s self-driving car project, was briefly chairman of Voyage before a conflict (he is also the chief executive of Kitty Hawk, the hoverbike startup backed by Larry Page, chief executive of Alphabet, which owns Waymo) forced him to step down.