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Let the car drive, Part 1. The digital wakeup call.

February 26, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
Self-driving cars are coming to a showroom near you, with major manufacturers saying they’ll have something ready by the opening of the next decade.

To consider what that might be like as the time approaches, I ask you to join me on a little journey into the early 2020s, presented, old-fashioned newspaper serial form, for the next few installments of PabloG.

It was a warm morning in late April when the car alarm went off at 5:45 a.m.

It always seemed to go off just when the sun was rising and the warmth of the covers was just right.

But, it wasn’t just the annoyance of being awakened by the car that annoyed Bob. It was the fact that it was his day off and he’d forgotten to reset the alarm through his phone last night. The car alarm was programmed to go off at a set point chosen by the owner. Bob usually chose 45 minutes past his usual wake-up alarm time. He found that to be the time that still allowed him a few minutes to get dressed, shave and get to work via the high-speed lanes his digitally controlled car was allowed to use.

Unlike a normal snooze alarm, this was a loud klaxon down in the garage, sounding for all the world like something from a Navy war vessel calling people to general quarters. Absent action, the neighbors would be pounding on Bob’s door soon. Letting the car alarm go off before dawn was a terrible faux pas.

It was the car demanding attention. Where are you, Bob? It’s time to go to work, it seemed to be saying.

Bob picked up his iPhone XVI, (they went Roman numerals for their high-value line after buying up Motorola about five years ago) and went through the machinations to get the Chevy to shut the heck up. On a good day, it took about a minute to go through all the phone screens necessary to disarm the car. The software made it difficult because cars were serious business and didn’t want to be set to snooze.

For out in the garage, waiting for Bob, the Chevy would have armed its climate control, disconnected its charger plug from the wall receptacle and rewound it into its inner fender liner. It would have booted up and been waiting, driving lamps lit on low beam, software suite open and analyzing Bob’s schedule, for nearly 45 minutes. It would have his daily news readings and video cued up, his appointment calendar open and the seats set just the way Bob liked them. The optional coffeemaker would have brewed the perfect cup in his thermal mug.

But it would have used precious energy to do so, reducing Bob’s available range from 250 miles on the overnight charge to something less.

Bob rolled over and went back to sleep. He had nowhere in particular to go and he could plug the car back into the wall later. He laughed about the words “car alarm,” which used to mean someone had tried to break into the car. Now, the charged skin of a parked car was disarmed only when the owner approached and programmed a special fob to send a signal. With the prospect of being shocked, thugs didn’t usually bother today’s “smart” cars. (Owners hated that term, because of the obvious referral back to the anything but smart Smart car of the early 21st century.)

No, when someone did something that would set off an analog car’s car alarm, they tended to end up in a heap next to the car, stunned for several minutes. They’d either scramble off into the night or be caught by the owner or revealed by neighborhood videocam footage later at the security booth at the end of the street. The car would alert its owner that it had used its taserskin along with a timestamp of the use, making it easy to look at video and identify would-be non-smart bandits.

Later, over coffee and the LCD NewScreen, Bob started thinking about the upcoming visit from his brother across the state. He was looking forward to seeing Jerry, but he knew Jerry wouldn’t arrive on the appointed day, even though the journey was only a few hours. Jerry had only an analog car, a 15-year-old Chrysler, and he would be confined to the surface roads designed and built in the 1940s. No Interstates or freeways for Jerry, who refused to give in to the wonderful, hands-free, high-speed world of automated personal transit.

(Tomorrow, we’ll visit Jerry as he prepares for his trip to see Bob. )


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