Robots will enable a sustainable grey economy

Oldies will retain mobility and independence when Teslas can self-drive them to work or be sent out to do the shopping

My uncle Amadeo turns 79 this week and bought himself a luxe Model S Tesla as a present.

Amadeo is an eminent scientist and avid student of the future, so the Tesla was an obvious choice because I suspect he recognises that he won’t always feel comfortable behind the wheel.

So he opted for a vehicle that can already do some of the the driving for him. Thanks to a constant stream of software updates, his car will continue to get better at driving itself. If Tesla stays on trend (given the gigantic leaps being made in both machine learning and autonomy this seems a safe bet), at some point in the next five or six years my uncle will be able to relax and let his Model S do the driving. He'll have the freedom of owning a car and lessen the chance of the diminution that comes when the aged lose independent mobility.

This places the Tesla among the same class of devices as a Zimmer frame or a walking stick - an indispensable aid to mobility for the elderly. While a Tesla costs a hundred times more than a good Zimmer frame, that’s only true because it’s the first of its kind. By the mid 2020s you’ll be able to buy autonomous vehicles from nearly every major manufacturer at a variety of price points. For the first time in the history of the automotive industry, vehicles will be marketed directly to a segment of the population who will never actively drive them, but need a car and the resources to purchase one.

When the elderly can go where they want, when they want, with less help, there’ll be a simultaneous expansion of other kinds of services they need but can not easily access without a car. A new ‘gray’ ecosystem will emerge - particularly in medicine, but spreading far beyond that - as it adapts to a newly mobile population. People will be out in the world longer, likely living longer happier lives as a result. And all of this just because we’ve taught cars how to drive themselves.

Self-driving cars also help the aged because they can be despatched to run errands. If my uncle doesn’t want to leave the house on a particular day, the Tesla can go for him. “Drive through shopping” will become commonplace as driverless vehicles make their way to automated warehouses where purchases are gathered and packed on board by robots. Suddenly, Amazon’s purchase of robot maker Kiva starts to make more sense. It’s all of a piece with a world where the robots - an autonomous car is certainly a robot - run about fulfilling our needs.

There's more than convenience on offer here. My uncle still works - after his university made him retire, he became a successful entrepreneur! So he’ll need his Tesla to drive him to the office, to meetings and conferences. Autonomous mobility means extra years of creative productivity - the opposite of a proposed ‘job apocalypse’ that sees us all living frugally off Basic income payments as the robots rise and drive us out of our jobs. Instead, my uncle will time to mentor a generation who inhabit a world where work is almost never backbreaking drudgery and almost always meaningful.

The autonomous vehicle has come out of nowhere in the past two years, to obsess and fascinate almost everyone in technology, policy, economics, urban planning - you name it. Changing the car changes everything it touches. We’ve only just started to consider the human meaning of these changes. This isn’t a saga of woe and unemployment, this is a story of a world that’s so smart it can support us, holding us high.

Here's the scenario I like best.

My father stopped driving last year. He lives about an hour’s drive from my uncle, just far enough away that it’s a bit of a project for either brother to visit the other. Of all the foresight bundled into my uncle’s purchase of an autonomous car, one stands head-and-shoulders above the others: within a few years, my uncle will be able to dispatch his car to chauffeur my father over for a visit. In their final years they’ll be able to spend even more time together, assisted by a world that’s smart enough to help. ®

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