Combatting loneliness in the aging population with #AccessibleOlli

By | 4 minute read | March 15, 2018

Earlier this year, IBM’s Institute for Business Value published a report entitled ‘Loneliness and the aging population.’ At its heart was a desire to understand and address the challenges of global demographic aging trends, and one in particular: loneliness.

Download the insightful "Loneliness and Aging" from the IBM Institute for Business.
Download the report from the IBM Institute for Business Value

There are many triggers for loneliness and social isolation, but one of the biggest is loss of mobility. For those who are unable to drive, the transportation options can be limited or inconvenient. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Autonomous transportation and initiatives like #AccessibleOlli could provide a practical, actionable solution. By improving mobility for everyone, self-driving vehicles could help older adults reconnect to others and strengthen cherished social relationships.

Olli takes a turn at CES 2018

Olli takes the stage at this year’s CES

Loneliness: a growing risk

Unfortunately, loneliness is more common than you might expect, particular in older adults. According to a study referenced in the IBV report, 47% of the population report feeling lonely at least some of the time. Moreover, 32% feel they lack companionship, and 18% report feeling isolated.

The implications for physical and mental wellbeing are significant, too. Medical literature cites poor outcomes for those who are socially isolated, including:

  •      29% increased risk of coronary heart disease
  •      32% increased risk of stroke
  •      64% increase in developing dementia
  •      26% increased likelihood of death

What causes loneliness?

Loss, both in a social and physical sense, is the main precipitator of loneliness in older adults. Many people report a sense of social loss, stemming in part from the invisibility of healthy, active older adults in popular culture, and a sense of their roles being reduced or ignored. Physical loss, such as a decline in vision, hearing or mobility can make social interactions more difficult on a practical level. Both forms contribute to an unmet need for social interaction.

Also on the physical side, lack of mobility is a huge factor for many, especially if it results in no longer being able to drive. To those who have long relied on their vehicles to run errands, get to work and socialize, the absence of that resource can represent a loss not only of freedom, but of control. When combined with the challenge of physical distance – from friends, family and community activities – not being able to get around easily can spell a shrinking social network and increased isolation.

What can we do about it?

For those who have mobility issues, at least, autonomous transport can make a real difference. A self-driving car removes the driver from the equation. That means in theory, anyone can use it to get around. It also means that the ideal autonomous vehicle should work for everyone, including those who have vision or hearing loss, or cognitive disorders. Since almost 50% of adults over the age of 65 will be impacted by visual, hearing, sensory, mobility or cognitive losses, there’s a definite need for autonomous transportation.

With this in mind, IBM and the CTA foundation teamed up with Local Motors and 17 other partners to launch the #AccessibleOlli project. The mission: to create an autonomous transportation solution that is accessible to all.


Olli is IBM’s super self-driving shuttle bus. Created by Local Motors and enhanced by Watson IoT, it’s fully electric, partly 3D-printed and provides a cognitive rider experience. This means it can hold a conversation with passengers, find out if they have any particular requirements, and even make recommendations about places they might like to visit.

We wanted to make sure that Olli worked for everyone and could support those with impairments by adapting to their specific needs. To help identify some of those needs, the #AccessibleOlli collaborators created four disability personas: Erich, Brent, Katherine and Grace. For Erich, who has degenerative vision loss, a voice-controlled interface means he can ask Olli questions, and more easily find a seat. For Brent, who has hearing loss, there is a sign language solution from partner KinTrans. Katherine uses a wheelchair, so Olli’s smart retractable ramp and securement system, through Q’Straint, makes sure she can board and travel safely. And for Grace, who has early-stage dementia, there are technologies that recognize her and give her gentle reminders about when to get off the bus.

Olli deploys its wheelchair ramp

Olli deploys its automated wheelchair ramp

#AccessibleOlli goes far beyond simple profiling, however. It offers a personalized experience through a simple solution: an RFID card. The card works a bit like a bus pass, but crucially it contains vital information about the passenger who carries it. This helps Olli to recognize them and anticipate their basic needs automatically, without having to be asked. Recognizing Katherine via her card, for example, Olli will automatically deploy the wheelchair ramp to help her board swiftly.

We’re continuing to work with our partners to refine and improve Olli. Together, we hope to make autonomous transport a practical reality that will help everyone achieve greater mobility, forge lasting social connections and make loneliness a thing of the past.

Olli in action

Olli is currently in residence at National Harbor, MD, where it will continue to be the focus of ongoing labs and workshops. You can learn more about Olli and Watson IoT by visiting our website. In the meantime, if you have ideas about how to further instrument Olli to be more accessible to all, we’d love to hear them. Use #AccessibleOlli to join the conversation on Twitter.

Join us at Think 2018

We’ll be talking about #AccessibleOlli and many other topics around automotive, at Think 2018, Las Vegas, 19-22 March. Think is a first-of-its kind event, bringing together innovators from all over the world to make businesses work smarter. You may be particularly interested in these sessions: