I love it when the same topic comes up simultaneously in wildly different contexts all at the same time. Right now, that topic is autonomous cars.

Our guest on Episode 17 of the Seniortopia Show, Tom Fisher, director of the Minnesota Design Center of the University of Minneapolis, was the first person to bring up the subject. In our interview, he makes the prediction that autonomous vehicles will completely take over the streets in most cities within 10 – 20 years. His center has been working closely with the major car companies on the design challenges presented by autonomous vehicles and he sees them aggressively making the move from selling us cars to selling us mobility. Tom, who also has an extensive background in cultural history and the history of ideas, says the shift from horses to cars took about 20 years so he expects the timeline to be about the same for the shift to autonomous cars.

Shortly after we interviewed Tom, I began reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. Very early in the book, the author talks about autonomous cars in the context of the rise of artificial intelligence. Many people object to autonomous cars due to fears that the AI controlling the cars will make mistakes and people will be hurt as a result. Harari makes a convincing case that humans are much less predictable than computers and that once programmed and debugged, autonomous cars will be much safer than human-driven cars. The question, of course, is who will control the programming of the autonomous vehicles?

The third person to bring up autonomous vehicles was Alexis Ohanian (co-founder of Reddit) in an article about the senior living sector and the opportunities provided by “elder tech.” He pointed out that many senior communities with their controlled environments are being used as testing grounds for self-driving cars.

Safety is one of the most-frequently cited benefits of autonomous cars. Despite a few well-publicized cases of accidental deaths involving the cars, most experts agree that human error is the cause of the majority of accidents. Cutting down on the dangers of people driving while distracted, under the influence, during bad weather, and other sub-optimal situations will dramatically cut the number of people killed by vehicles.

But there are other not-so-obvious benefits to getting rid of our cars. Here are a few:

  • The space in private garages will be available for use as extra living space (or a place to store more stuff we don’t need?)
  • Streets that used to be full of parked cars will be opened up for bicycles, pedestrians, cafe tables and other community uses
  • Seniors, as well as people with disabilities and children will have greatly increased mobility
  • No one will ever have to take the car keys away from their aging parents again!

What are some benefits you predict from the switch to autonomous cars? Are you excited about it or do you think it’s a terrible idea?