MORNING RIDE

Tom:

The car is a Saber 5000, but that’s kind of obvious. There’s no other cars allowed on the roads anymore. The last of the 3500s — I’d always wondered why Saber skipped a 4000 series — had finally been phased out about three months ago in favor of these larger cars with ‘more robust safety systems.’

Or something like that.

I never paid much attention to the endless government propaganda that preceded their ‘auspicious’ launch, when Trump City 6 became the first major metropolitan area to declare itself entirely driverless.

All I need to know is a car will be ready when I need it.

I’d used my ComDev only moments before to call one and had received a confirmation almost immediately that a car was making its way to my building. In the dim early morning light it was easy to make out which of the nearly identical Sabers was mine. It was the one with the vague purple glow illuminating its tinted passenger dome.

Between riders, the car’s sterilization system, which includes some kind of powerful ultraviolet light, is activated to erase any remnant of the previous occupant(s) and ease the fears of the many germophobes out there. It also caused a slight warming of the air that was kind of reassuring, especially as it mixed with a measured dose of hypoallergenic scent — was it gardenias? — that released just before the car door opened.

The car already knows I’m heading to Coreblock. So, as soon as I fall onto the plush oval of cushioned seats under its dome, the Saber moves into traffic.

It’s a merge made easy by technology. The hundreds of cars in the street automatically make room, allowing my Saber to achieve its 60 mph cruising speed in a matter of moments with only the slightest of co-mingled whines from its electric motors.

I sit facing away from the initial direction of travel, knowing that in a second or two the car will make the first of many changes in direction to reach my office. These sometimes abrupt changes caused problems in the early autonomous days. Lots of complaints about car sickness, which in my experience proved that even the best automatic cleaning system has its limits — such as erasing the smell of the last passenger’s barf. One of the answers to this rampant car sickness was a centrally mounted holographic video display, viewable by everyone in the car. It wasn’t really a hologram, but it did have a pretty good picture. The idea was to give riders something to concentrate on so they’d have a better chance of holding onto their dinner, or in my case, breakfast.

5 years ago:

INTERVIEW WITH JOHNNY CHU, CO-CREATOR OF THE SABER 3500

JOHNNY: It’s a ballet of exquisite precision choreographed by algorithm and executed at quantum speed. For a passenger it means their ride is delivered with the utmost efficiency, greatly aided by the demise of stop signs, stop lights and the so-called butterfly effect of merging traffic. Sabers drive in concert with each other. As a result, they can pass through intersections at speed while changing lanes and directions abruptly without the possibility of collision.

These unconventional driving patterns also influenced fundamental design elements of our cars: Unlike traditional transports there is no front or back to a Saber. Stand at either end and the car is identical. There are no headlights, brake lights or exterior lights of any practical kind. — the Saber doesn’t need them. There are four engines and independent steering to allow for lane changes to be made safely at almost 90 degrees at top cruising speed.

And because the thousands of cars we have on the road co-operate with each other, I’m not being prosaic when I describe it as a ballet. We’ve watched traffic video slowed down and it’s a beautiful almost artful display happening on our roads.

INTERVIEWER: So are you saying the cars are all centrally controlled?

JOHNNY: Not exactly. You can see how it works, essentially by looking in a mirror.

INTERVIEWER: A mirror?

JOHNNY: Yes, you do own one, don’t you Clint? (He pauses while the interviewer laughs.) In many ways our cars and their systems echo the day-to-day operations of the human body and mind — reflecting the complex partnership between conscious and subconscious thoughts and our activities. The conscious mind is aware of our surroundings and the actions that we choose to take part in, such as getting up to walk. The unconscious takes care of the rest. It stores memories and the physiological or involuntary functions we don’t spend time thinking about such as balance, muscle control, motor skills an even noncognitive perception. There are parallels, with that gross oversimplification, to how the Sabers’ neural networks operate.

INTERVIEWER: So you’re saying that all your systems work in harmony?

JOHNNY: I prefer to say these operations are intertwined, because those functions we think of as being conscious and subconscious exist in each car and in the network to some degree. Sabers can operate individually using data from built-in cameras and localized sensors — the car’s consciousness, if you will. But the car also supplies and receives data from our network where deep thinking machines combine an enormous amount of information supplied by other cars, drones, traffic cameras and modeled routes based on millions of previous deliveries. This is the subconscious at work, and it’s when those functions are intertwined that we can have this kind of holistic consciousness with one over arching goal: Getting from A to B as quickly and safely as possible.

Tom:

As the car changes lanes several times, I can feel it making all the moves necessary to get me to the office for the announced time. It’s my first job out of college, and I’m still under probation, so punctuality is a good thing.

I settle back and close my eyes, ignoring the entertainment features built into the car. Instead, it’s earphones and music delivered by a vintage portable CD player. Today’s listening is the greatest hits of Public Image Ltd (it’s a short drive).

I absently run a finger across my 1980s pocket protector — recently purchased after a fierce online bidding war — as I’m lulled to a state of fugue by Johnny Rotten and the unparalleled safety record of the Saber 5000. Unfortunately, my respite is short lived, which turns out to be kind or ironic, because a few seconds into the third cut, there is a loud thud and the car bucks violently.

By the time my eyes open, all I see is carpet. I pick myself off the floor with a certain knowledge: The 5000’s unparalleled safety record has taken a major dump – my car just hit something!

All I see is red. Large smears of it on the dome above me.

They’re wet. Lines of red flowing, jerked around by the wind, traveling over the top of the DiamondGlass dome and launching into the slipstream.

So much blood.

What the hell is going on?

I am sickened when I realize a dark patch on the dome is actually the remnants of someone’s nose. Blood has suctioned it tight to the glass, but air passes through it and flares the nostrils. It looks like it’s still breathing.

The car bucks again as it crashes through a section of gate that’s meant to protect pedestrians from the dangers of crossing the street — with the advent of driverless cars, jaywalking became tantamount to suicide. The Saber mounts the sidewalk giving people no time to react as it runs them down. Some are thrown, others fall under its wheels, one bounces off the unbreakable DiamondGlass.

More red. Lots of red.

My car breaks through another gate and back into traffic, except it’s not regular traffic anymore. Other cars are attacking and people are running onto the road to escape the vehicles on the sidewalks. No matter what they try, the cars find them. Bodies begin to line the street.

I’m about to reach for my ComDev and call someone — anyone — to report this and likely scream for help, but I’m distracted by the Saber that’s pulled alongside me. It’s occupant is bathed in a familiar purple glow, except it’s brighter than usual. A lot brighter, and it’s causing the guy’s skin to sizzle like over-cooked bacon. The poor bastard collapses against the dome, his mouth still open in an unfinished scream.

I hate myself because one word pops into my head: CARnage! I let out a nervous laugh, but that stops abruptly when I notice that I’m getting warmer. The sterilizing system in the top of the dome is activating. All of it. Even the redundant systems.

I am now a germ to be eradicated.

My ComDev is my only source of hope, but who do you call when the world around you has gone nuts? It turns out to be an unnecessary question. There’s no signal. Is the car blocking it? Is there something greater at work here that’s affecting all technology?

The car veers off the road to speed through a plaza near my office. There is a succession of impacts and bodies thrown to the side and over the car — was that Jeff Jenson from Accounting? It then steers itself back onto the road, the cars in front and behind automatically making space for it.

Faces in nearby cars reflect my panic. Some are already suffering the effects of massive UV doses. Others are watching them and crying in desperation, knowing their cooktime is coming. Still others panic and throw themselves at the domes of their cars, smash briefcases, canes and, in one case, a false leg against the DiamondGlass.

I try to think beyond the panic as my skin begins to crisp, but in a moment, I’m screaming and pounding on the dome just like all the idiots around me — except one passenger I fail to notice. He’s busy at work.

I know that I’m helpless. No ComDev. No chance of escape. Still, there is some kind of irrational satisfaction in lashing out. I continue to pound on the unbreakable dome until it does something unexpected.

It breaks.

Next Chapter: JOHNNY’S TODAY & YESTERDAYS

Suggested Listening:

Cars Gary Numan
I See Red Split Enz