Skidders – a novel about the autonomous car and how it will save the world for cycling
I don’t think people fully grasp the profound change upon us when it comes to transportation. Google’s design for the autonomous car is going to change the world in wonderful ways. It will make driving and cycling as safe as commercial flight.
Within the next two decades autonomous cars will be everywhere and in short order they will be the only way to go. Cars we can drive will go the way of the Model T.
The best way to illustrate what’s coming is to write about it. We already know the fundamentals of how it works, and it’s only going to get better. Society and laws have a hard time keeping up with the fast pace of technology these days. But it’s coming like a freight train and we better get on board.
It’s time we had something a little uplifting after two tragic Bay Area cycling deaths in the past week. So let us begin our story of the autonomous car and see how it will forever change cycling – for the better.
Dreaming of a bike ride like this
Dave picked up his tablet and it immediately came to life. “Can I help you?”
“I’m planning a bike trip this weekend with Prieta. We’ll need a car.”
“I will need a time, location, duration,” the tablet replied in a matter-of-fact voice.
Dave looked at Prieta, sprawled on the couch watching TV in the living room. “Dear, are you OK with riding to Big Sur and taking the car back? We can spend a night at Grand Lodge. How about next weekend, the 24th? We’ll need a car on the 25th, say around 2 p.m.”
Preta looked up and smiled. “Tailwinds, wildflowers in April. How could I say no?”
Dave turned back to the softly glowing tablet. “I don’t suppose you heard that.” He wished it could follow a conversation. Dumb tablet. “We need the car on the 25th, 2 p.m., Grand Lodge. We’ll be waiting out front with our bikes.”
No more than 15 seconds later the tablet responded. “I have three options – Anis, Hearts, Cheap-O.” The tablet read off the fees and made a recommendation taking into consideration the bikes. “There is a 75 percent chance a car will not be available if you wait more than 48 hours,” the tablet said.
Dave wondered if this feature was put there by the corporate carpet crawlers or if it was really legitimate. “OK, I’ll go with Anis and the van.” He didn’t like bike racks. A van made things so much easier. To be continued…
A quick ride – part 2
“I’m going for a ride,” Dave said. “Interested?” Prieta put her head over the couch and waved him away. “Not today, Hon.”
Dave went out in the garage and fetched his Trak carbon-fiber bike. He liked top-of-the line but passed on the electronic shift that was all the rage. He didn’t want dead batteries messing with his ride.
He moved his first road bike out of the way, the one his father bought him when he was seven in the year 2000. Dad’s love of cycling had rubbed off and they often rode together. That was in the early days of auto-cars when you never knew what was and what wasn’t autonomous.
His dad founded Dashboard, the country’s largest manufacturer of dashboards for autonomous cars. He saw the future and jumped on it. In the early days, working out of the garage, the family struggled, but Dave saw how innovation could change the world, with a little sweat equity.
As he rolled into the street, that eerie feeling washed over his conscience. Growing up with cars driven by people put caution in his DNA. Now mixing with cars that were programmed to avoid obstacles with a mind of their own seemed too good to be true.
An auto-car rolled by and pulled up next to his neighbor’s driveway for a pick-up. His neighbor, Bob, waved as Dave pedaled by. “Enjoy your ride,” Bob yelled.
At the first intersection Dave looked both ways even though he knew that any car in close proximity would slow to let him pass.
Stop signs had all but disappeared in metropolitan areas. He remembered the heated city hall meetings his father attended, him always reassuring the politicos that stop signs and most stop lights were useless safety features.
At the corner of First and Harold Dave breezed through the intersection as cars slowed to allow him to make a left turn. He picked up the pace, not wanting to slow traffic for long.
“Now that is progress,” Dave thought.
A window of opportunity – part 3
As the meeting entered its third hour, Ben Lee looked at his smartphone. The lanky engineer fidgeted in his chair. He was supposed to ride with his son in another hour. That looked unlikely with each passing minute. He looked over at Dave and they made eye contact.
A quick frown said it all. His son had just graduated from college and this was his indoctrination with the company’s leaders. Ben had to pull strings to get him in, but he wanted his son exposed to the business as soon as possible.
National Motors CEO Allen Zobra looked at the agenda. “OK, we’re down to the last item,” he said, sweeping back a few thin gray hairs, by now a reflex motion.
“We’ve been following autonomous cars since the DARPA days back in 2004. Here it is 2012 and Boggle’s driving their car all over creation without a scratch. Even got that California Governor Sunstroke to make it legal.”
“I have a request for doubling R&D on our autonomous research.
“Ravi, give us an update. What’s this all about?”
Ravi Ambitarani knew Zobra was ambivalent about autonomous cars, but competitors were making noise. In Japan Naboya Motors promised an autonomous car by 2020. National wouldn’t have anything until at least 2030.
“Allen, Naboya announced they’d have an autonomous car by 2020. Sources in Europe tell us ZT is on track for having one around that time. I can’t tell you what they’re doing in Korea, but they’re not sitting still.”
“I know, I know,” Allen said. “The press asks me everywhere I go. ‘When will we have one? How much will it cost?’ “It’s not that easy. We need infrastructure.”
“What bothers me though is do people really want it?”
“I rode in one of our cars. Gave me the creeps.”
A rumble of acknowledgement erupted from the senior staff. “I don’t trust it. What if… Where do you… When can you…”
Dave interrupted. “Sir, they’re far safer than humans. The Boggle car has had one accident, and that was human error.”
Allen glared at Dave. “You would be?”
Dave looked down at his notes then over at his father, who smiled with pride.
“I just started Mr. Zobra. My father, Ben, is a lead engineer on the autonomous car project.”
“OK. Ben, you should introduce me. If your son is anywhere near as smart as you, he’ll go far.”
“He has promise,” Ben replied.
“Go on Dave. I want to hear from someone younger than a bunch of old fogies in this room.”
“Sir, planes, I mean commercial airlines, fly mostly on auto-pilot. They could fly without pilots right now.”
“Tell me about that,” Allen interjected. Tell that to the passengers on flight 89. Their pilot put them down on the Mississippi River when their plane hit a flock of geese on takeoff. He saved the day.”
“That’s true,” Dave said, gaining confidence. “But for every incident like that one I can tell you 10 others where pilots misjudged a situation. They even ignored their instruments.”
Zobra’s eyes narrowed. “Do you watch car ads, Dave? Do you see what we’re selling? Freedom — not cabs. That’s what this country is built on. It’s why we have cars and not trains. People aren’t giving that away for a little more safety.”
Dave looked at his father. A Chinese proverb came to mind, one his grandfather repeated at every opportunity.
“Sir, I can tell you there are 40,000 people every year who will disagree, make that 2 million if you count the injured.
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for National. When the wind of change blows, some build walls, while others build windmills.”
A hush fell over the room. Zobra took his last shot.
“So, we have a young Jeve Bobs here. The customer doesn’t know what he wants, but you do and you’re going to show him.”
Zobra looked over at Ravi. “Have you been talking to Dave?”
Ravi smiled. “I didn’t have to say anything Allen. He’s young. He’s our future.”
“OK Ravi,” Zobra said after a long pause. “Let me think it over.”
Two-wheeled algorithms – part 4
With no stopping at intersections, Dave made good time riding west on Stevens Creek Boulevard a main artery through Cupertino. It sure beat the days when he had to stop every half-mile for a light.
He decided to swing by Orange headquarters and see the “Spaceship,” surrounded by those equally impressive fruit orchards. In the spring — flowers in bloom — it made for a pixel-perfect moment worth sharing on myFace. All of this thanks to the genius of Orange founder Jeve Bobs.
Orange and Dashboard collaborated on next-generation auto-car controls. Together they worked out the algorithm ensuring the safety of bikes, motorcycles and pedestrians.
“Contacts. Abhaya.” With a flick of his head he brought up Abhaya’s image in his Boggle glasses. One of Orange’s lead engineers, Abhaya worked with Dashboard. “Call. Voice only.”
Seconds later Abhaya answered. “Dave, what’s up?” she said in her usual perky voice.
“Abby! Riding by. You at work?”
“Literally riding by. Look out the window.”
“Ha! I see you.” Abby had a choice location along the Spaceship’s outer fourth floor, reserved for Orange’s brain trust.
“My father’s birthday is next week; that’s…let me check.” Dave turned his head in a quick circle to bring up the 2033 calendar. That’s the 25th. He’ll be 75. Care to join us for a small celebration? You can update me on the latest hack patch.”
Hackers didn’t take long to go after auto-cars. Anything networked was fair game for hackers.
“Your father looks so young,” Abby said. “I’d be happy to join you, and Prieta.”
“Great,” Dave said as he waved to Abby. “I’ll let you get back to work.”
“Stay safe,” Abby said. “Have you seen any Skidders?”
“Not yet, not in a while, but they’re out there.”
Turning left on Miller Avenue, Dave heard tires screech. A patch of blue smoke drifted over the scene of the near-accident. A rider on a fixie flashed by, gave the one-finger salute, and sped away.
“Damn, a Skidder!” Dave cursed. A handful of cyclists and motorcycles gamed the system, braking traffic with lightning-fast lane changes. Most did it for fun and rarely got caught.
They nearly cost cyclists a place on the road. Once the auto-car craze caught on, Skidders started having their way. After a 15-car pile-up, the politicians stepped in and floated laws to ban bikes. Motorcycles quickly fell in line and had to have all the same gear as auto-detection.
Cyclists and pedestrians were another matter. Fortunately the greatly increased road safety had fueled bike commuting. From a meager 2 percent through 2020, it had jumped to 10 percent and there was no slowdown in sight.
Cycling lobbyists put the pressure on, and the CO2 laws did the rest. Cyclists counted toward CO2 credits. Without them, states couldn’t meet their quotas. Congress caved and turned once again to Silicon Valley for a fix.
Tribute ride – part 5
Dave wasn’t surprised when word came down the next day that Ravi’s budget wouldn’t budge it. Zorba encouraged the team to keep working hard so National could make the best and safest cars on the road, short of being autonomous. At least Zorba didn’t waffle like so many CEOs.
He wondered how his father would take the news. After missing their ride yesterday he wanted to see if they could take off early and go.
Dave cycled home, where his father was working. He often networked into the office.
As the garage door opened he saw his father seated in their experimental auto-car, windows up. Only a handful of employees had access to the futuristic vehicle.
His father didn’t look back. He stared intently at the dash, its instrument panel glowing blue, red and green.
He heard a faintly audible sound through the glass. Strangely, it resembled his mother’s voice carrying on a brief conversation with his father.
If only it were true. Sarah died in a car accident on Hwy 101 at one of the last cloverleafs slated for redesign. A truck exiting took out her car as she merged onto 101. She never had a chance.
Dave tapped on the window. Surprised, his father lowered the electric window, eyes moist and red.”
“Did you hear that?”
“Yes, it sounded like mom.”
“It was her,” he said. “We were carrying on a conversation of sorts. I adapted her voice to Oracle.”
Dave wondered what his father had been doing in his spare time.
“I think it’s time we parted ways with National,” Ben said to Dave. “Personalized voice adaptation should get me a foothold as I strike out on my own.”
“I’ll stay on at National,” Dave said without hesitation. “I just started. You don’t need a junior marketer just yet.” Money might be an issue in the next year. He could help.
His father smiled and touched his son’s shoulder. “That’s not a bad idea.”
“Ready for that ride?” Dave asked.
“Yes. I know just the place and it’s not far.”
Dave didn’t mind riding with his father – he could keep up – but his choice of roads, or lack thereof, left something to be desired.
They headed south on San Tomas Expressway then turned onto Winchester Boulevard, one of the original roads in the South Bay. In Los Gatos they picked up the unpaved Los Gatos Creek trail. The woodsy town at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains attracted many of the leading engineers in Silicon Valley.
Following the creek, they climbed gently for nearly two miles before reaching a steep incline of 20 percent. “This was a where the South Pacific Coast Railroad went until it was dismantled in 1940,” said Ben.
“Look down there in the creek bed and you’ll see some concrete bridge pylons.”
Lexington Reservoir changed all that in 1952, inundating a bucolic valley and covering the towns of Lexington and Alma, along with the railroad line and old Santa Cruz Highway.
While riding the roller-coaster Alma Bridge Road, Ben pointed out a beaver dam in the creek. “They somehow found a way to survive with all the development.”
Following a four-mile climb on the two-lane Old Santa Cruz Highway through redwoods, Ben and Dave turned left onto the busy Summit Road and continued two miles before turning left onto Morrill Road.
After about a mile they turned left again and headed steeply down Wrights Station Road. Ben sped ahead of his less accomplished son.
At the bottom of the hill Ben stopped to wait. “This road is named after the train station and town of Wrights, located next to Los Gatos Creek,” Ben said after Dave wheeled up. They looked down into the burbling creek from a rusty steel bridge. Redwoods cloaking the narrow canyon rose into the blue sky like cathedral spires. In the brilliant sunshine of a warm spring day they heard only the sweet, peaceful sound of bird songs.
“It’s such a quiet place,” Dave said, wiping sweat from his forehead.
“I want you to see something special,” Ben said. They walked a short distance and Ben pointed. “See that dark spot ahead?”
“Yes. It looks like a tunnel. Out here in the middle of nowhere.”
“Let’s take a closer look,” Ben said. Sure enough, it was a tunnel, sealed shut only 20 feet in. Concrete and bricks lined its sides.
“I couldn’t take you all the way here on the South Pacific Coast right-of-way because it’s closed, but this is the first of four tunnels through the Santa Cruz Mountains into Santa Cruz,” said Ben.
“What happened?” Dave asked.
“Once the cars took over and Hwy 17 got built, there wasn’t much need for a train,” said Ben. “Southern Pacific had the tunnels dynamited in 1940, compliments of the U.S. Army. They got plenty of use after they opened in 1880. The 1906 earthquake took them out, but they were fixed at considerable expense.”
Ben took something from his back pocket. “I brought you here son to see what great things people can do when they put their minds to it, and how quickly it can be forgotten.”
“Now let’s pay tribute to the builders of these tunnels. More than 30 of our Chinese forebears gave their lives here at this very place. A natural gas explosion took them out.”
Ben placed a small jade Buddha at the entrance. Dave immediately recognized the hand-carved stone. “That’s mom’s good luck charm.”
“They deserve a suitable monument,” Ben sighed. “This will have to do. One day these tunnels could be opened again. A train wouldn’t make sense, but a bike trail is a different matter. I can assure you it would be the world’s most scenic path from bay to ocean.”
“What would that take?” asked Dave.
Ben laughed. “A billion dollars and an act of Congress. Next time you meet a billionaire who rides a bike and has political influence, you let him know.”
Ben turned serious. Don’t think it can’t happen son. My grandfather repeated a proverb that I will never forget and it has served me well.
“Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words. Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions. Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits. Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character. Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.
“Right now we have to fix the car problem. Now let’s head home. We’ve done our work here. Race you to Summit Road!”
Charging ahead – part 6
When Ben tendered his resignation at National’s Silicon Valley office, CEO Zobra made a half-hearted attempt to keep him on. It was the usual corporate maneuvering – stock, salary increase, but Ben had made up his mind. It wasn’t about the money.
Within weeks Ben entered discussions with the up-and-coming Tensile Electric Motors. Their 17-inch LED console turned heads among their well-heeled buyers, but Tensile needed help integrating their dashboard with the network. It was down-and-dirty infrastructure work, the kind Ben thrived on.
As Ben worked out of the garage, Dave became a frequent flyer, representing National at the Silicon Valley Automotive Group, comprising car companies, insurance, networking, and government, building an ecosystem for the cars of tomorrow.
The endless meetings became heated. Everyone wanted to own the data, a treasure trove of information that would save lives but at the same time nibble away at privacy.
Bike racing offered a perfect escape from those mind-numbing meetings. Dave’s bike handling skills improved with every competition. Racers called him the Rocket Man with his red-spiked hair sticking out of his helmet. Pretty soon his father couldn’t keep pace on the climbs.
“Come on Dad,” Dave said on one of their long weekend rides. “You need to ride more miles.”
“You need to slow down,” Ben replied. Dave eased up on the pedals.
“I need to tell you something in confidence,” Ben said, catching his breath. “I’m hiring a hacker.”
“What?” Dave looked at his father, who was clearly laboring. Sweat dripped like a leaky faucet onto his wire-rim glasses.
“We’re only months away from launching the auto car. Nobody is to know about this,” Ben said.
“His name’s Xu Byte. He was a black hat in China before emigrating to the U.S. He hacked into plenty of our systems. Says he’s reformed.”
Dave had dark thoughts about hackers. While they had blown the whistle on the government’s NCA spying, one with an ax to grind could unleash a nasty virus. In his marketing role he couldn’t do much, except pressure anyone who would listen to clamp down with the legal equivalent of pillage and burn.
“But Dad, they can’t be trusted. Besides, it’s going to be a year, probably two, before anyone else has an auto-car on the market.”
“I know, but I want to be prepared. There’s plenty of reasons they’ll give for making a mess of things so I want to try to head them off.”
As they approached Wurr Road, Ben pointed for a right turn. That could only mean one thing – the Haul Road and more dirt. What’s worse, they had to climb out of the canyon on the hideously steep Portola State Park Road. “Thanks Dad,” Dave whined.
“We’ve got storm clouds gathering,” Ben said in an ominous tone. “From the jungles of Borneo who shows up but Peter Macintosh. I listened to his talk and he described that Black Cloud I’ve been hearing about from Xu. He guarantees total anonymity on the network. Personal issues aside, Macintosh is brilliant. Crackpots don’t get to be multi-millionaires. He has a unique ability to apply principles from one science to another.”
Dave heard about the networking mogul in the news, but he sounded like someone who had done too many drugs in his youth. “What do you mean applying principles from one science to another?”
“He’s talking about quorum sensing. It’s how bacteria and other organisms that rely on networking – you know, ants, bees, etc. – make decisions. Quorum sensing can function as a decision-making process in any decentralized system, say a million small networks that are part of a massive network. Cars for instance.”
Dad, “that sounds like neural networks. I learned about that in school and it’s been around for decades.”
“It’s part of that, yes,” Ben said, “but the person who solves this puzzle is going to be a great danger to society, or benefit depending on what color hat they’re wearing. Xu and I have been talking about using a Fibonacci search technique to stay a step ahead of their hacks. Everything signal leaves a trace; it’s just that you’ve got to be able to find the needle in the haystack in milliseconds.”
Stormclouds gather – part 7
Once again Macintosh’s timing proved impeccable. He had a solution for the early computer virus back in the mid-1980s. Now he had an answer for keeping prying eyes and governments from checking your email. A wave of paranoia swept the country after a low-level government whistleblower revealed that the government had tapped into not only wireless traffic but the entire Internet. In the name of security, they had made everyone feel insecure.
Macintosh offered a private network within a network that could be anonymous and encrypted, or not, as the user’s discretion. At the cost of $100 the easy-to-use B-Ware flew off store shelves.
As Dave studied the network’s intricacies, he couldn’t help but be impressed. It had only one shortcoming. Its range extended less than a mile. But it was easy to use. He merely plugged it into his wireless hub and opened port 2358.
This new “Black Cloud” had an interesting side-effect. Dave opened the newspaper and scanned the local news. “Dad, here’s another arrest thanks to the Black Cloud.”
“I’m not surprised,” his father said as he continued reading the funnies. “There is no escape from nosy neighbors.”
Using the local anonymous network, residents banned together in a virtual neighborhood watch. Police monitoring the black cloud on their tablets could follow along. It was like having a thousand scanner-equipped cops on the street.
Dave looked over at Xu to see if he was paying attention. Xu stared at a monitor covered with a pulsating web of B-Ware network nodes. Dave’s attitude about hackers hadn’t changed, but he came to realize hackers aren’t all alike. Xu’s innocent view of the world, even after all he had done, appealed to him.
“Did you hear that Xu?”
“Yes Mr. Dave. It is good thing. But I crack B-Ware. That is also a good thing to do. Mr. Ben says it is a good thing to do.”
Dave knew that if Xu could crack B-Ware’s encryption, the anonymity would evaporate. It was no easy task. Dave’s father had no interest in publicizing his accomplishment when it came. He just wanted to crack the encryption so he could track down the hackers and virus creators who were sure to disrupt the auto-car movement.
Xu had become a household fixture in recent weeks as Ben turned over most of the house to his business. Xu often slept on the living room couch, empty soda cans cluttering the coffee table. The place looked more like a frat house than a middle-class suburban flat.
“We go out tonight and party, yes Mr. Dave?” Xu was not the stereotypical studious Chinese. He had a wild streak. At age 27, thin and fit, Xu had the look of late movie star and martial artist Ben Xi, only his hair was spiked blonde and his hands would never be dangerous weapons, except with a keyboard.
“Sure Xu, do you have some friends in mind, or are we looking?”
Xu smiled. “We are free radicals tonight. You choose place.”
“Hey, there’s that monthly San Jose Bike Party tonight,” Dave offered. “They always finish at a local bar.” It was one of those all-too rare balmy evenings in the Bay Area, perfect for a ride. “You can use my spare bike.”
Riders started arriving downtown in small groups at Cesar Chavez Plaza. Pretty soon a couple hundred cyclists headed out on a pre-designated route as the city lights flicked on in the shadows of the city’s modest highrises. Only a handful of riders knew the route but that didn’t matter. In the party atmosphere riders popped wheelies and showed off their custom bike lights. LEDs illuminated wheels that displayed psychedelic images — one way riders liked to stand out in a crowd.
Most rode fixies. Dave tried a fixed-gear bike for a time in his early racing days but he quickly gave it up. Too dangerous. That didn’t dissuade the fixie crowd.
“Wai! Leng Leui!” Xu sang out as they rode along. It didn’t take Dave long to figure out what Xu was referring to, even in the dark, as the young ladies rode by.
After an hour riding around town, and hardly any police interference, the ride ended as O’Dools Bar, known for its locally produced beer. The futuristic-looking establishment drew a hip, young crowd to watch sports on big-screen TVs and dance. As cyclists filled the bar and spilled into the streets it wasn’t long before Xu had a young lady at his side.
“Meet my friends,” Xu said as he grabbed Dave by the collar and pulled him closer. “Jill and Prieta.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Dave said. Xu waved goodbye as he pulled Jill into the crowd and onto the dance floor. “Do you do this ride often?” Dave asked Prieta, trying to make conversation. Prieta got closer to make herself heard as Dave detected a pleasing aroma of summer Jasmine. “First time. And you?”
“Same here,” Dave said.
“What do you do?” she asked? “I work for National Motors. Marketing.”
What do you do?” As Prieta said something about working at Orange, his eyes wandered to her tight nylon bike shorts, long supple legs of a bike racer and a complexion that could launch a cosmetic business. “I hear that The Spaceship is under construction,” Dave said.
“Finally. I hope I can move in there, but that hasn’t been decided yet,” she said, hand sweeping back long black hair.
“You look like you do a lot of riding, Prieta.”
“I do,” she said with enthusiasm. “I love it. It’s freedom.”
“Same here,” Dave said. “I mean the freedom part. It sure beats driving.”
After idle conversation, Prieta looked at her smartphone. “It’s getting late,” she said. “I have work tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I’ve had a long day,” Dave replied with a hint of sadness in his voice. He had hoped they could talk longer. “What does your friend do? He seems to be having a good time with Jill.”
“He’s a hacker, I mean a programmer,” Dave corrected, too late.
Prieta tensed up. “If you meant a hacker, I hope not. I know a hacker. He’s up to no good. I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore. Ever since the Black Cloud came out he’s been locked in his room.”
“I know what you mean,” Dave said knowingly. The Black Cloud has huge potential, good and bad.”
Prieta perked up and smiled. “Right now I’m on cloud 9. Will you friend me on myFace?”
“Sure,” Dave said with a smile as she gave him her last name. “We can go for a ride, if you’re interested.”
“In the daylight next time,” Prieta laughed. “We’ll text.”
Nothing technology can’t fix – part 8
A day before the 25th, his father’s 75th birthday, Dave decided to do some last-minute shopping. Like most fathers, his dad wanted nothing. “I have you. What more is there?” he always said.
Dave picked up his tablet and told Oracle to have a car at his front door in 30 minutes. “Cheap-O will do. This is just a short trip.” The forecast called for rain and he didn’t like biking in it, except when it came to the work commute.
A confirmation came in just a few minutes. Killing time, he looked at Orange website and found the latest tablet. His father was still using one of the antiquated OLED rigid screens. He liked the Origami model that folded to pocket-size.
“I’m going shopping,” he called to Prieta. “Back in a few.”
“Oh, could you pick up some items from the list?” she responded. Dave went to the refrigerator, tapped on the flat panel and held his smartphone close to download the list.
An alert on his smartphone told him Cheap-O was waiting. A blowing rain pelted him as he dashed out to the waiting car. He looked closely at the window. Nothing. Facial recognition wasn’t working. “Damn this rain.” Cheap-O cars were notorious for failing when wet. He put his hand on the window. Again nothing. Hand recognition also failed.
“Car, open the door!” he yelled against the blowing rain.
“Voice not recognized. Try again.”
Dave fumed. “Open the door!” Again the same lame response.
Only one option remained and he had only a few minutes before the car gave up and left.
He ran back in the house to check his smartphone and access the passcode. He’d have to enter a number manually.
“What’s wrong?” Prieta asked as she prepared food for tomorrow’s party. “Technology, that’s what’s wrong! I should have ridden.”
“And get soaked?” Prieta laughed. “You’re crazy.”
Dave paced the kitchen waiting for the email to come up. “What is with this phone?” he whined.
“Internet has been acting up,” Prieta said as she checked a dish in the oven. “Must be the weather.”
A minute passed, but finally his email opened. “Oracle, what’s the passcode for Cheap-O?”
“634903,” Oracle answered with authority.
He dashed back out into the pouring rain and punched in the numbers. The door popped open and Dave jumped in. It was on days like this he wished he owned an auto-car, even as people gave up ownership mainly due to high maintenance costs.
“Welcome Mr. Lee. How is your day?”
“Shut up,” Dave growled. Auto-car rentals asked users to fill out a lengthy profile so they could carry on a conversation. It was bad enough that he had to give his handprint, voice recognition and facial scan.
The car backed up and started for to the mall. “How’s the parking at Valley Fair?” Dave asked.
“There is an estimated two-minute wait for a parking space.”
That wasn’t so bad, especially for a rainy Saturday. He decided to have the car wait. It was more expensive, but he wouldn’t have to chance a long wait for a pickup car home. This would only take a minute.
“Drop me off at the entrance to Macy’s and park. I’ll call when I’m ready.”
“Yes Mr. Lee,” the car responded.
Dave dashed inside to escape the pouring rain and headed through the crowded mall to the Orange brick-and-mortar store. People still liked to get out and mingle, even though they could just as easily order everything online.
He shut off his phone to avoid the advertising alerts. Time was money right now and a 10 percent discount couldn’t persuade him to stop.
Once inside the rainbow-colored Orange store, Dave ogled the gleaming personal devices. They kept getting smaller, lighter, more affordable. With several Origami models to choose from, Dave wanted to try them out. He settled on the pricier version with better battery life and swiped his smartphone at the counter to pay as the clerk gift-wrapped the package.
He hurried out of the mall and turned on his smartphone outside to signal Cheap-O. In less than a minute it pulled up by his side and Dave stepped in. “That wasn’t so bad,” he told himself with satisfaction.
“Take me home,” Dave said. “Play some Collider for me, will you?” As the music played Dave sat back and enjoyed the view. Cars moved along in an orderly fashion and it was only rarely they slowed to a stop.
Dave jumped out and headed inside. He didn’t have to pay Cheap-O. Everything was taken care of online. It was one of those small conveniences that made up for the occasional hiccups in technology.
Prieta greeted Dave at the door. “Did you get the items on the list?” she asked as she took his wet jacket.
Dave had that sinking feeling. “Darn! I forgot. I turned off my smartphone in the mall, so I didn’t get a reminder.”
He grabbed Prieta, who still had the jacket in hand. “Guess who’s going for a walk to the store?” he fumed. “I’ll be right back.”
There will be danger – Part 9
It wasn’t long before Dave and Prieta became an item. They managed to find time for weekend bike rides between hectic work-weeks at their fast-paced jobs. Prieta had just started working at Orange in finance and attended evening classes toward her CPA.
Ben worked around the clock in collaboration with Orange preparing for the Tensile Electric Motor auto-car unveiling. Their company’s CEO, Sergey Zhukov, Russian-born, Stanford University educated, had risen to prominence thanks to a brilliant mind and incredible marketing savvy. A national-caliber middle-distance runner as a student, he briefly contemplated a professional running career. A shoe company dangled a six-figure income, but a last-minute business opportunity steered him in another direction.
Already a billionaire when he started Tensile, Sergey enjoyed the challenge of taking aging technologies and reviving them through innovation. Electric cars had been around longer than gas-engine cars, but never caught on. Battery technology got stuck in a rut, but Sergey found a way out.
His Model S luxury car with a range of 300 miles became a sensation and any Silicon Valley executive with a healthy 401K owned one, or wanted to.
Sergey shared his thoughts about the car’s future with Ben during their frequent meetings at Tensile headquarters in Palo Alto. One day when Sergey was in a particularly upbeat mood he turned to Ben and made a shocking admission. “Just between me and you Ben, it’s not about the car, not anymore.”
Ben looked puzzled. “You are doing so well Sergey. Electric cars have finally found their place.”
Sergey looked out the window with a view of the blue-green Santa Cruz Mountains in the distance. Fog hugged the hilltops on a brilliant summer day. Just then a hummingbird flew up to the window, took nectar from an elegant Foxglove, peered inside and then sprinted away to some undiscovered finish line.
“Between me, you and the hummingbird Ben, the car is nothing more than a tool to take you from one point to another. The auto-car is going to suck the life out of the car industry. That’s why car manufacturers fear it. They think they can take half-steps by offering forward-collision avoidance, lane departure warning, adaptive headlights, you name it. They’ll give drivers all that as long as people can still drive.”
Sergey touched the dashboard display demo, swiped through a menu to access music. “Play Vivaldi.”
“One of my favorite Baroque composers. I could listen to his music all day. I like nothing more than reading a book and listening to classical music. And that’s my point. There’s no longer a need to drive. People will just sit back and let the car do the driving. We’ll have time to read, listen to music, even sleep.”
“I think everyone knows that Mr. Sergey,” Ben said. “It’s just that it will take a long time for that to happen, don’t you think? People need to warm up to the idea.”
Sergey turned to Ben. Let me show you something. Follow me. They walked down a long corridor and outside to a large non-descript garage. A guard greeted them at the door. “Good day Mr. Zhukov.”
The CEO pressed his thumb against a glowing metal pad and then keyed in a password. “My guest is under NDA,” Sergey said. He’s clear to enter.”
Inside, the spacious garage looked like a cross between a hospital ward and a machine shop. A handful of blue-coat engineers milled around a Model S.
“Have a look,” Sergey offered. Ben circled the shiny black sedan, its paint so brilliant he could see intimate details in his reflection. Every part fit as one, like a stone shaped by the wind.
He peered inside and saw “his” life’s work, the dashboard gleaming, framed by a highly polished trim that looked like ebony. Suddenly he noticed: no steering wheel.
Ben gasped. “Mr. Zhukov. How can anyone drive this car?”
“Driver assist and every advanced feature pioneered by Boggle thrown in,” Sergey said as he ran his hand across the hood with all the grace of a mother coddling her new-born child. “This is only the beginning, but you know the rest,” Sergey said. Indeed, Ben knew only too well after spending more than two years toiling over the details. “It’s what people don’t see that will revolutionize driving. Our efforts with Orange and your company will offer seamless access to everyone’s personal information – movies, books, search engines, websites.
“Remember Bright Star? That service could help you in the event of an accident. Ours will take you where you want to go, when you want to go, and if there’s a problem we’ll pick you up within 30 minutes and take you home.” Ben suspected something like this was in the offing, but this was the first time he was hearing it from the CEO.
“Yes, we’ll make cars and we’ll make money that way, but it’s the content and the services that will make us even more,” Sergey said as he opened a door and offered Ben to take a seat. Ben sat in the roomy front and tried out the Dashboard console. He quickly accessed the day’s local TV news and admired the hi-def image, the stereo sound. It sounded like his home theater. Even the seat felt comfortable.
“By the way,” Sergey added almost as an afterthought. “With this model we’ll offer a battery exchange. I have a thousand gas stations signed up. It’s as easy as changing batteries in your flashlight. Takes 10 minutes.”
Sergey turned serious. “Ben, I know you’ve been working on the darker side of managing the network. Your updates are greatly appreciated. How confident are you about our chances of keeping things safe?”
Sergey studied Ben through the open window, as though a particular facial movement would tell him the real truth.
“I have every confidence… we can succeed… with our efforts,” Ben said slowly. I have a plan.”
“It is in everyone’s best interest that we succeed,” Sergey said. “Thousands of lives will be saved. This is for the greater good.” Ben swallowed hard and contemplated what had to be done. He did not accept danger well and he knew only too well there would be danger.
Keeping track – part 10
Friday night under the lights at Hellyer Park drew Dave and other racers to try their luck on the concrete oval. In need of speed he couldn’t think of a better way to get it than racing head-to-head on the track.
After several months racing and a new track bike, Dave had become proficient, but plenty of racers could smoke him on the short sprints. He preferred Devil take the hindmost. Surviving came down to sprinting every lap to stay out of last and elimination.
On this night he held his own: four riders left, three more laps. Dave hammered the pedals to stay in the race. He made it by a wheel. Only two other riders stood in the way of his first win.
He sized up his competition. Bike Beard had more speed, but this race had gone 15 laps. He wasn’t getting any younger at age 40. The bearded racer defied convention, riding an ancient steel bike. The other younger rider he didn’t recognize, but he stood out in black jersey, embossed with a skull and crossbones that said “take no prisoners.”
Dave drafted to save energy, never taking the lead. He waited for the inevitable kick. Suddenly, Mr. Take No Prisoners rose from his saddle to sprint, but as he did so his rear wheel slowed and seemingly went backwards, bumping Dave’s front wheel. Bam! That’s all it took and he was down.
“Damn! You SOB!” Dave dragged his bike off the track, nursing a sore hip and a big red raspberry visible through his torn nylon shorts.
Tom, Dave’s teammate on the San Jose Bike club, came up and offered some comforting words. “You almost had that one. Next time.”
“Did you see that guy in the black jersey?” Dave moaned. “That was a cheap move.”
“I know,” Tom agreed. “There’s no honor in this sport. That’s for sure.”
“Do you know him?”
“That’s Ben Travon. He’s one hot racer these days. He won the Cherry Pie Criterium earlier this year.”
“One hot, dirty rider,” Dave growled. |
As Dave ambled off the track, Prieta, who had been watching in the stands, came up and gave him a hug, whispering in his ear. “That’s the hacker I know, Ben Travon.”
Dave spun around to look for the rider, but he had disappeared.
Showroom – part 11
Sergey Zhukov paced nervously behind stage as workers scrambled to make last-minute adjustments before the unveiling. A life’s dream to build the best electric car realized, Sergey would follow with the first autonomous car available for purchase.
He spent every waking hour in the months leading to the rollout planning for the big event. Special invitations numbered in the low hundreds, and Ben Lee was one of the lucky ones. He cherished the ticket as much as the honor of having Dashboard in the first Model Z autonomous car by Tensile Motors.
After months of searching, Sergey settled for the unveiling inside a small parking lot on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. On this clear spring day the Golden Gate Bridge gleamed orange-red, in perfect harmony with the towering highrises of San Francisco in the distance and the rugged hills separated by the blue waters of the Golden Gate. Painting the bridge had cost Sergey millions, and shutting it down millions more in political “donations,” but he considered it a small price to pay for the ultimate beauty runway.
Helicopters buzzed overhead as the hour neared. Cameras mounted atop the bridge would capture every angle as the Model Z made its run across the 4,200-foot-long span on its own power with a mind of its own, a towering achievement to human ingenuity.
Sergey’s wife, Alicia, hugged her husband tight as she looked into his eyes. “This is your finest hour, my darling. Tonight we will celebrate until the sun rises over that gorgeous bridge.”
“I only hope it goes according to plan,” he said with worry written across his face. “This is our only chance.”
“Don’t worry, Sergey,” his wife implored. “It will work. It is your destiny.”
In the heat of the moment Sergey thought back to his days in the NCAA finals. The 1,500 meter race would be his last as a senior. It was his dream to win but he had butterflies and his skin felt cold on the hot rubber of California State University, Sacramento’s track. “I have prepared to the best of my ability for this day,” he told himself.
Sergey made sure every major car company received an invitation. They would have front-row seats. No expense was spared to make them comfortable. Allen Zobra turned sat in the front row watching the spectacle unfold. “Damned if this isn’t the biggest waste of money I’ve ever seen,” he whispered to National COO Doug McDurbin. “Doesn’t he know nobody would spend $100,000 for a cab?” McDurbin nodded in agreement. “A sorry waste of technology.”
CEOs from Naboya Motors, Hindi Autos, and ZT sat talking among themselves in native tongues, pointing to the bridge and reading the Model Z brochure on a paper-thin OLED pad just released by Orange. Naboya’s CEO Shiguru Fukushi looked disconsolately at the brochure. His dreams of having the first autonomous car dashed, he searched his thoughts for what his company could do in response. He could only hope the Model Z had problems, as did the early Model S Tensile.
Seconds ticked by to high noon and time for the show to begin. Sergey stepped to the podium and greeted the audience in 10 different languages. He looked at his carefully crafted speech that he had memorized weeks in advance.
“Today is a momentous occasion for people around the world because on this day Tensile Motors and what I think of as my extended family – the workers, suppliers, the owners of our cars – can finally see the next step in transportation – the first autonomous car that you can buy.
“It is the safest car in the world, the most advanced car in the world, the most connected car in the world. It will change how you drive, free you from the tyranny of worry that grips each of us on the highway. You can sit back and relax as the Model Z takes you to your destination. Read a book, watch a move, talk to your loved one on the phone, even sleep. A ripple of laughter interrupted the speech.
Sergey explained the recent updates to the Model Z’s battery technology, which had increased to 400 miles. The audience chattered among themselves when they learned about the 10-minute battery change and watched in stunned silence as Sergey showed a video touting the car’s dashboard with its multi-function display.
“It’s time to introduce you to the Model Z,” said Sergey and on cue a wide-screen projector came to life with the Model Z entering the Golden Gate Bridge headed toward the assembly.
In less than two minutes the car had made its way across. It slowed to enter the parking lot and rolled to a stop at the stage where Sergey stood. The driver-side door opened, then the passenger door, followed by the two rear doors for all to see – nothing. Although everyone on the stage had seen it all before, had ridden in autonomous cars and knew its capabilities, it still instilled a feeling of accomplishment. A mountain had been climbed, a flag planted in the thin air of an extreme height. And now it could be owned.
Sergey felt a sense of calm as he stepped off the stage. He thought back to the 1,500 meters race, a distant memory but one he would relish. Victory.
Freedom road – part 12
Sergey had one more wrinkle in his business plan. Just as the telecom leaders subsidized smartphones, so would Tensile Motors have its cars subsidized through a complex arrangement involving car rental companies, Boggle, Orange, insurance companies and other content providers, Model Z cars could be leased but never owned.
Tensile accountants did their homework, factoring in the cost of car ownership to arrive at a monthly fee within reach of about 20 percent of the population, enough Sergey believed to make a run at profitability in the first three years.
Ben approached Sergey at the evening gala dinner to congratulate the business wizard for a flawless presentation. “It was the lead story in the evening news, Sergey. The missing steering wheels has everyone talking.”
“Indeed, I knew it would,” Sergey said in his matter-of-fact voice. “It’s the first of many innovations our users will come to appreciate. But the real star is your dashboard, Ben. It’s a joy to be in control. The personalized voice is such a nice touch, don’t you agree Alicia?”
Alicia pulled up to Sergey’s side and offered a toast. “Touché. How thoughtful of you to insert your voice in my car, answering my every command. It gives me a sense of…empowerment.” Sergey touched his glass to hers. “Of course, I have your voice in my car,” he smiled.
Sergey turned to Ben. “By the way, I have a little something for you. Sergey handed Ben a credit-card. “Keys to a Model Z, or what will have to pass for a key,” Sergey laughed.
Ben took the card and looked at Sergey in admiration. “I’m honored,” Ben said. “I never expected this. You have compensated me well.”
“It’s my obligation to you, Ben. Your extracurricular activities have only just begun. This car may come in handy.” Ben knew only too well it might.
Fortunately Ben knew how to control the Model Z and had already signed up for myZ, enrolling him in the roadside service program that guaranteed no more than a 30-minute wait in the event of car trouble.
Ben gave the Model Z his destination and with nary a hesitation it was on its way, taking him home from the party in the early hours of a new day.
At home Ben found Dave preparing for work. “Look what’s outside Dave,” his father said. Dave looked through the kitchen window at the driveway. “A Model Z! What’s up? I thought they weren’t available yet?”
“True. Sergey’s gift.” Xu stumbled into the kitchen from the living room, where he had been sleeping on the couch. “Mr Ben. This is a grand day. Let’s go for a ride.”
“I’ve got work,” Dave said. Ben looked at his son. “You will be late,” he said as he put his hands on his son’s shoulders and pushed him out the door. We’ll get you to work once we’ve gone for a drive.”
Ben waved his card over the door handle and the doors opened. “OK, where to?”
“Skyline Boulevard,” Dave said without hesitation. “OK, take us to Skyline Boulevard.” Ben admired the screen as it brought up a map and traced the route. “A slight change,” Ben said. “Take us straight down Saratoga Avenue, not by the freeway.”
In an instant the route changed. The car, with a mind of its own, backed out of the driveway and headed off. It was a first for Xu. He had never been in an auto-car, although Dave had been in the experimental National car on several occasions.
At the intersection the Model Z slowed for a passing car and then turned right as it entered traffic on the busy Stevens Creek Boulevard.
“Let’s view what the car is seeing,” Ben said. “He gave several commands, made some swipes and brought up a ghostly view of their surroundings with objects illuminated in orange, red, and green. “That’s the lidar working, painting a picture with lasers. Sergey and his engineers worked with the semiconductor companies to drive down the price. It’s being built for less than half of what Boggle charged, and once their patents expire, the price will drop even more.”
Xu found it all a bit underwhelming. “Wake me when we reach Skyline,” he said. “I’ll be dreaming ones and zeroes.”
Ben and Dave carried on a conversation as the Model Z, expertly handling the winding curves of Highway 9, took them to their destination,. As they passed bicyclists Dave noticed the Model Z moved left and appeared to give the required three feet separation according to state law. “They thought of everything,” he mused.
On Skyline Boulevard the Model Z turned right and headed north. Soon the redwoods gave way to open fields. To their left they admired the Pacific Ocean and to their right Santa Clara Valley spread out before them, the Moffett Field hanger shining brightly in the morning sun. Sergey kept his private jet in the hanger, one of the perks that came with financing its refurbishing.
Dave felt naked without a steering wheel at first, but after a time he grew accustomed to its absence. Peering down he noticed the car still had brakes. At least there was something a driver could do in the event of an emergency.
Sergey hardly needed to advertise the Model Z. It sold itself as early adopters embraced the auto-car and extolled its virtues. A fervor swept the U.S. Tensile could not keep up with demand.
Car rental companies and cab companies had priority for the Model Z. They quickly introduced personalized pick-up and drop-off for daily commuters who could not afford to own the Model Z. Cab drivers saw their jobs going the way of the blacksmith.
Ben and Dave exited the car at the overlook parking lot to watch the sun rising. “I’ve never felt so alive,” Ben said to his son. “There is hope for the future.”
“I’m late for work,” Dave replied. Let’s go now or my future will not look so bright.”
In Washington D.C., the politicians took notice. The wheels of government churned slowly. Laws would have to be made. Lobbyists knocked at doors, their special interests at stake.
Buying influence – 14
Alicia applied the final touches of makeup as she admired her reflection. The former Russian beauty queen could still draw a look entering her third decade, the age of confidence. She brushed back her long silky blonde hair and adjusted her diamond earrings.
“I’m taking our Natasha to D.C.,” Alicia reminded her husband, who dressed for yet another meeting with investors anxious to cut a deal with Tensile. Natasha was the name she gave their private jet. “I have a date,” she chided.
Sergey smiled. “He won’t know what hit him.”
“Senator Tomkins is our man. I know he is,” Alicia said in her authoritative voice. Raised in a military family, Alicia learned how to take charge of a situation from her father and grandfather. Both had been tank commanders, her grandfather having served in the elite 5th Guards Tank Army where he distinguished himself at the Battle of Kursk.
Her grandmother Nada, also a veteran, served in the military police. She often talked about directing traffic in Berlin days after the Russians captured the city. “I was the best with the traffic baton,” she boasted. “The men, oh how they loved to watch me perform.”
Alicia carried on that flair for performing in front of an audience, an attribute not lost on Sergey when he met her one evening after giving a talk at Stanford University.
Now Alicia had some convincing to do. “Have a seat,” the Senator offered as Alicia entered in a grand style, lifting off her sun hat and removing her sunglasses. “Can I get you something to drink?” the senator offered.
“Why thank you. You are so thoughtful. It must be that Southern hospitality.”
The Senator laughed as he poured a drink of ice water. “I trust we will follow up with a glass of Russia’s best vodka,” Alicia said as she took the glass.
“I’m more of a bourbon man myself,” the senator replied. “But I’m always willing to try something new.”
“Pleasantries aside Mrs. Zhukov, I’m anxious to hear about your business proposition.”
“Right to business,” Alicia said. “I like that in a politician. As you know, Tensile Motors is based in Fremont, California, and we’re growing like crazy. You also know how expensive it is doing business in the San Francisco Bay Area.”
The Senator’s eyes lit up. Now in his fifth year, the 55-year-old politician was hitting his stride. His penchant for making deals that boosted Kentucky’s economy put him in a good position to run for a second term. He sensed something big was about to happen.
“Mrs. Zhukov, I can read your mind. I am so happy you thought of the state of Kentucky and our auto manufacturing prowess.”
“Yes you can,” Alicia said. “Your state has an excellent record with Naboya Motors. I think there’s room for growth that will be mutually beneficial for everyone.”
Since its introduction in 2018, several more companies introduced auto-cars. Within two years a quarter of all private vehicles had become autonomous. Car rental companies had switched exclusively to auto-cars.
“There is one thing,” Alicia said as she leaned forward in her chair, smiling.
She took a printed document from her notebook and pushed it across the desk. “We could use your help. If auto-cars are going to be truly successful, we need all cars to be auto-cars.”
Tomkins smiled back and flipped through the pages, not really reading. “It just so happens we see eye-to-eye here. I’m something of a technology geek myself. I don’t have to read this.”
Tomkins had no illusions about deal-making. It was give and take. He stood and walked over to the window, gesturing to the street below where cars moved in seemingly robotic precision. “It’s not going to be easy convincing a majority to buy into what you’re asking for.”
“Let the battle begin,” Alicia said with a coldness in her voice that caught the senator by surprise. “Let’s meet tonight. We will seal the deal with a glass of vodka.”
“You’re on!” the Senator said enthusiastically, reaching out to shake Alicia’s hand.
End of the road
To the 10 people who showed any interest in finding out more about autonomous cars in the guise of a story, this is the end of the road, at least until the book comes out. Check back in a year for the exciting conclusion.