That day started just like any other. The alarm clock rang at 7:30, John turned over in bed to try to shut the noise out but couldn’t ignore it so he rolled out of bed with a grumpy “Alright, I’m up!” His AI assistant replied “Alarm off,” and the beeping stopped. He went into the bathroom to start his morning routine. He was in the middle of getting dressed when there was a ‘bong’ from the AI assistant’s speaker “You’re transportation has been arranged, it will arrive in eleven minutes” the neutral voice informed him. “Thanks Siri,” he mumbled out of habit, then finished dressing. Dressed and ready, he stepped into the kitchen to get his breakfast. A message was flashing on the screen of the fridge that read “You are running low on some commonly used items, do you want to order more?” He absentmindedly clicked Yes then swiped his thumb in the reader to confirm the purchase. Immediately the AI assistant started reading out the list of groceries he had bought but he ignored it, grabbed his breakfast from the fridge and packed it in his work bag. He pulled on his shoes and jacket and went out.
When he left the apartment the car was nowhere in sight. Checking his phone he realized he was a minute early and sure enough, when a minute had passed the car pulled up in front of him. It was empty so he weighed his options for a moment then opted for the back seat. As soon as he had buckled the seat belt, the car took off with a faint humming from the electric motors. He folded down the little tray table, got out his breakfast and started eating. A few minutes later the car pulled up to the curb to pick up another passenger.
The car was already waiting for her when Adriana opened the heavy outer door of her building and walked down the steps. She noticed that there was someone already in the back seat so she opened the front door and stepped in. Normally she preferred sitting up front where the view was better but she felt uncomfortable having an unknown man right behind her so she scooted over to the left side – the one her dad always called the driver’s side for some reason – and buckled up. The car sped off with the characteristic electrical humming and after a few nervous glances over her shoulder, she got out her phone an started scrolling through the news feed.
Some minutes later the car left the residential area and entered the cross city express way. As always, the expressway was crowded during the morning rush hour but the car kept in perfect sync with the rest of the traffic and everything flowed smoothly. Suddenly a message flashed across the screen in the center console, Adriana spotted it in the corner of her eye, and the car started slowing down almost imperceptibly. Neither Adriana nor John reacted to this. About a minute later an alarm started blaring and a robotic voice came on over the speakers repeating the words “Warning, autonomous system offline. Warning, autonomous system offline.”
“What the hell?” John blurted then started looking around with a bewildered look on his face. Adriana, with more presence of mind, put down her phone and looked down at the center console which displayed a warning message on a bright red background. “Warning,” she read out loud, “the autonomous driving system is offline. Click confirm to control the vehicle manually.” “confirm is the only option,” she continued with a shrug of her shoulders, then clicked the button. With that, the panel in front of her opened and a steering wheel extended out towards her from the opening. She turned to face John, a look of alarm on her face, “What do I now?” she asked. “Grab the wheel and use it to control the car,” John replied, his voice surprisingly calm.
She grabbed the wheel with both hands but didn’t hold it straight enough and the car started to veer off to the left. “Turn it the other way,” John scolded, and she yanked on the wheel making the car swerve to the right. “Not so big movements, try to keep it centered,” John shouted, his voice a mixture of fear and rage. Adriana paid no attention to his words, she was fully focused on avoiding a crash. A few tense moments passed as she wrestled with the steering wheel, the car swaying from side to side, until she finally got the car pointing in the correct direction.
It was only then that the two passengers noticed that the cars on both sides were speeding past. “Why are we slowing down,” Adriana asked, “is there something wrong with the car?” “How should I know,” John replied angrily then corrected himself, “Wait, I actually do know, you’ve got to step on the gas pedal.” Adriana looked down and spotted two pedals in the footwell, “there are two here, which one should I press?” she wanted to know. “Am I supposed to know everything,” John responded, “just try one.” Then, as an afterthought he added “But gently!”
Adriana looked down at the pedals, contemplating her options, then selected the left one. She tried to be gentle like John had said, but she wasn’t used to exerting precision control with her feet; the nose of the car dipped sharply as it decelerated and they could hear the squealing brakes of the cars behind them. “Oh, my God!” Adriana screamed, but a little voice in the back of her mind cut through the fog of the panic and she lifted her foot from the pedal. They had almost come to a complete stop when she pressed down with her right foot. The electrical motor whining like a jet engine, the car shot forward again, quickly reaching highway speeds, with Adriana hanging on to the steering wheel and John bracing himself against the seat.
Realizing they were accelerating too quickly Adriana switched back to the left pedal. This time she was more gentle but the car still decelerated more suddenly than she had intended. “Hey! Geeeently.” John drew the word out for emphasis. “Oh shut up,” she retorted, “you come up here and do it if you think you’re so good.” John was nonplussed, he hadn’t expected her to talk back like that. Adriana eased her foot off the brake then slowly pressed the gas pedal, making the car accelerate less violently. When they had reached a speed that more or less matched that of the cars to the sides, she eased off the gas a bit and held her foot as steady as she possibly could. The car still wasn’t moving as smoothly as when the autonomous system was in control but they were no longer in any immediate danger.
A couple of minutes passed without much happening, Adriana keeping the car steady and John silent in the back seat. “Hey, you’re really getting the hang of this now,” he said with encouragement. Adriana just mumbled a quick “Uh-huh” in response, she was fully concentrated on keeping the car at a good distance from the one in front without pressing too hard on either pedal. John waited a few moments before he spoke again: “So uh…I’m…I’m sorry for shouting at you before, I was just panicking and uh…” “Look,” she interrupted him, “this takes all my concentration, so please just shut up.” He mumbled something inaudible in response but said nothing more.
A little while later some large green signs on a gantry across the road came into view. Adriana had barely noticed them before but now that she was concentrating on the view ahead, she paid attention to them for the first time. They were old and faded from the weather, the city government hadn’t bothered to change them for many years, but the text was still legible. “There’s an exit coming up,” she announced. “But we haven’t reached the city center yet,” John complained. “Oh screw that,” Adriana responded, “I’m not driving this thing any further than I absolutely have too.” She continued, “to get off the express I need to move into the right lane, I need you to tell me when there is a space big enough for me to move over.” John wasn’t pleased with the idea of leaving the expressway too early but he had to consent that she was in command, so he started looking for a gap between the cars in the right lane.
The rush hour traffic was intense but a few hundred meters further down the road, John spotted a gap between two cars that was only just big enough. “OK, go!” he shouted, and Adriana turned the wheel sharply to the right. The car moved over a little less wildly than when Adriana had grabbed the wheel for the first time, and after a few fearful seconds they were safely in the right lane. Some moments later the exit came into view. Adriana turned the wheel slowly but deliberately, moving the car onto the off ramp. She had misjudged the sharpness of the corner and pulled hard on the steering wheel to wrestle the car around, the tires squealing in protest. She only just managed to get the car all the way round the spiraling off ramp without scraping the left side against the concrete barrier.
Once they were down on the normal road, Adriana pulled over to the side, the car coming to a stop with a jerky motion. The first few moments after the car stopped Adriana just sat there, still gripping the steering wheel, her knuckles white and her palms dripping with sweat, the adrenaline washing over her in waves. As the pent-up tension left her body she slowly released her grip on the wheel then leaned back in the seat and sat there breathing deeply for a few minutes.
Meanwhile John had left the car and was pacing up and down the sidewalk, pulling his hair and mumbling to himself. When Adriana had calmed herself down she stepped out of the car and hailed him “Hey, are you OK?” “Yes, yes, I’m fine,” he mumbled but went on pacing. She took a few steps forward and when she was level with him, she put her hand on his shoulder, stopping him dead in his tracks. “Look,” she said, trying to make her voice soothing, “everything is fine, we made it in one piece, it’s all over.” He blinked at her a couple of times, “I…I guess you’re right, we are fine, we did make it,” he was silent for a moment then added “thank you, for saving me I mean, you did a good job.” Adriana smiled at the compliment but he continued “I just wish you hadn’t stopped us here..” he waved his hand at their surroundings, “whatever this place is.”
Adriana crossed her arms over her chest but said nothing. “So, now I’m stuck here,” he said glancing at his phone, “and there are no cars available in the area. I have an important meeting this morning and thanks to you I’m going to be late.” Adriana’s voice was laden with ice when she answered “The car is right there, feel free to drive yourself to work if it’s so important. I’m not gonna spend another minute in that thing.” With that she turned on her heel and walked away while he just stood there staring after her, completely stumped.
Kraukovski watched Adriana leave through the security camera feed on his monitor. “You did well girl,” he mumbled with a nod towards her social media profile that was open on the other monitor, “I knew you would be a good candidate.” He pulled up the report file and started typing. When he had reached the section titled “Resolution of Induced Error Situation” he happened to look up at the camera feed and noticed that John was still standing there, phone in hand. He finished the sentence he was typing then pulled up the car tracking application. Sure enough the car parked by the curb was the only one in the area.
He opened up another report file, filled in some basic data and put in John’s name under “Test Candidate”. He then opened the command line interface, reconnected to the car and sent off a couple of quick commands. Leaning back in his chair he turned his attention to the camera feed and watched with fascination as John noticed that the car was once again available, opened the door and stepped in. Kraukovski smiled slyly as he watched the car speed off.