Futurist Story From: Move Forward
Dolly vs. the Autonomous Car
By Trina Phillips
Dolly doesn't like this.
She has grudgingly come to terms with not being able to drive due to her eyesight. Her neighbor's demolished fencepost and mutilated rose bushes have proven that in no uncertain terms. She was lucky; Mr. Finkelstein was really quite lovely about it. Understanding, and more concerned about her than his prize-winning Queen Elizabeths.
Dolly eyes the little red pill of a car that sits at the curb in front of her. It had arrived on its own and supposedly knows where she's going. No driver. No human on board at all. And no steering wheel! They were going to make sure she couldn't try to take control.
But, this is what her daughter arranged for her. All she has to do is get in and off she goes. Sure, Dolly understands all of the great tech advances with AI and GPS and Jpeg and .pdf. They've come a long way since DOS, but that doesn't mean she trusts this…this…machine.
Where's the clutch, the turn signal, or even a mirror? Her eyes might be failing her, but Dolly knows how to drive. Her dad taught her to shift when she was only fourteen, and she could parallel park a big old El Dorado as easy as you please. This thing looks like it belongs on a track as part of an amusement park ride.
Dolly's phone beeps. She takes it out of her purse, lets it scan her fingerprint, and answers. It's her daughter.
"Hi, Mom. The car tells me it's been sitting in front of your house for twenty minutes. Is something wrong?"
She gives the car the evil eye. It's already tattling on her. But she doesn't want to hurt her daughter's feelings.
"I'm just not sure about this," Dolly says.
"Mom, I use them all the time. They're plenty safe. I wouldn't put you in one if I didn't believe that."
"You might be eyeing my bone china," Dolly says sardonically.
Her daughter laughs, as intended. "You don't want to be late for your lesson, do you? These cars are great at getting around traffic, but they don't fly yet."
"Too bad. I don't know which I'm more disappointed in, the Jetsons, or Doc Brown."
"See, you're ready to embrace the future," her daughter says. Dang her logic.
"Fine, but if I die in a fiery crash because of this self-driving car I'm forever going to haunt your operating system," Dolly says.
"I'm willing to take that chance."
Dolly could hear the smile in her daughter's voice. "I love you, too," she says and hangs up.
With a resigned sigh, Dolly approaches the car. The door opens automatically and she climbs in – choosing the traditional driver's position. She can at least pretend like she has some control. The seatbelt adjusts itself without asking, but not uncomfortably so.
"Welcome, Dolly," the car says. "We're heading to Lake Elsinore, correct?"
"Yes," she snaps. If there were a human driver, she'd apologize for her tone. But then, if the car had a human driver, she wouldn't be so nervous.
"The trip should take thirty-eight minutes. Your bio-readings indicate that you're uneasy. Would you care for a beverage, or some music to help you relax? I can also shade the windows if watching me drive makes you nervous."
"Don't you dare, I want to see what's coming." Dolly harrumphed. She couldn't believe she actually harrumphed – it was like she was getting old or something. Nah, couldn't be. From now on, she'd have to check her harrumphs at the door.
"You're a cheeky bot, aren't you?" Dolly says, then considers. "I'll take you up on the music and the drink. But none of that stupid, floaty, supposed-to-relax-you music."
"As you wish," the car says. The screen in the dash changes to display an impressive selection of drinks. Too bad they don't include alcohol; she could use a margarita. Dolly makes a series of choices designed to confound the AI, but thirty seconds later, it has crafted the exact beverage she requested without missing a step. All this while they slide through traffic and intersections.
Next it brings up her personal music selection, not just what's on her phone, but all fifteen hundred albums from her hard drive at home. Dolly assumes her daughter set this up, too. She chooses a little rock'n'roll, Elvis. He always puts her in a good mood.
At the first sign of traffic, the car turns off the main road onto side streets, but within two blocks, they encounter a flock of teenage pedestrians, seemingly going to some event. They stop at the intersection, the car patiently waiting for the road to clear.
"Why did you come this way? Didn't all of your fancy gadgets tell you something was going on?" Dolly says, and takes a sip from her custom crafted soda that's somewhere between root beer and ginger ale with a touch of licorice.
"There are no mentions of an event on the news, or in the city calendar. The slight delay, according to the traffic data, indicates that this is still the route preferable to the main road. However, I can change course if you like," the car says.
Dolly doesn't like the car's tone, accommodating, placating. This is why she'd rather deal with a human. "Don't be so patronizing."
"Would you like me to alter my personality? Your daughter chose my most pleasant program, but there are options."
"How about, normal person speech?"
"You got it." The car's vocal tone changes from gentle to normal.
Dolly frowns and then raises an eyebrow at the dashboard because that's where she imagines the main interface to be, even though she realizes the whole vehicle is probably one big interface.
The pedestrians clear and they proceed.
"By the way, I scanned the social feeds. There's a pop-up hoverboard exhibition at Buzzard Skate Park. That's what the crowd was," the car says.
"Really, a hoverboard exhibition? Can we go to that and still make my lesson on time?"
"No, but I can see about rescheduling your lesson."
Dolly shakes her head. "No. Margie and Frank will be upset if I'm not there with them. We're doing our first solos."
"I'll put a note in your calendar to keep an eye out for other hoverboard events."
"Sounds good." Dolly definitely likes this personality better, but she can't believe she's talking to the car as if it's a person. While this conversation is going on, they're sailing through traffic.
Dolly's happily singing along with Elvis when a grey cat darts into the street. Dolly gasps. She knows these cars will choose human life over animals; but the car zigs, then zags, somehow without tossing her around, though she feels a little g-force. It's worth it, because the cat scurries back to the curb, unharmed.
"How'd you do that?" Dolly asks.
"Algorithms and studied animal behavior."
"But cats are unpredictable."
"Okay, algorithms, animal behavior, and best guess."
Just like a human, except for the algorithm part. At least it's honest. "Well done."
"Thank you," the car says.
They rejoin the main road just in time to get on the freeway. The car slides into the Ride and Charge lane which is filled with autonomous vehicles driving very close together. The dash panel shows their car with distance markers showing their relation to the other vehicles. Dolly notes this. She's aware of this tech so she isn't surprised, but it's still impressive.
Dolly notices something else as she rides. "You don't have a transmission, do you?"
"Not in the traditional sense. Electric vehicles only need forward and backward."
Dolly thinks about when she used to be an ace driver. She was so good with the clutch that no one could beat her off the line, even when her car was twenty years older than theirs. She sighs. "I'm going to miss driving."
"Maybe. But think about all of the other things you can do. It's a matter of reorganizing your time," the car says, in what has to be a programmed response; not that it wasn't true.
"I suppose so," Dolly says.
The car brings up the list of classes for Dolly's local senior center.
"I noticed a Jedi sword training class at the park near your house. That seems right up your alley."
The car has highlighted a few other classes as well. It's right, though. Jedi sword training sounds like fun. Dolly's spirits lift.
"A new class starts Wednesday. Shall I sign you up?"
"Sure, why not."
They spend the rest of the ride browsing classes and events. By the time they get to their destination, Dolly's calendar is full.
"Here it is," Dolly says unnecessarily when they reach the Lake Elsinore Skydiving School.
"Today's your first solo jump, right?" the car asks.
"Have fun!" it says, as Dolly exits the vehicle. "I'll be waiting for you when you're done."
Frank and Margie meet Dolly in front of the school.
"I can't believe you, of all people, actually agreed to ride in one of those things," Frank says.
"Oh, they're not so bad," Dolly replies. "It was a lot more fun than I expected."
The car beeps twice in appreciation as it pulls away from the curb to go find a parking space.