The following article is long. Some of you will decry it as fiction outside of the space this website normally reserves for stories and others of you will lament its presence on what is supposed to be an automotive news website. Maybe you are right, but the truth is that I read a lot and my mind is constantly pulling at a million disparate threads of information and tying them together in ways that make unusual patterns. Some of these things have coalesced this week into the following piece and so I have offered it to the editors to see if they think it has a place on our esteemed pages. If you are seeing it, then they have given it the green light and all I can do is ask you to indulge me.
Articles about the future used to show up in the newspapers and the magazines with surprising regularity when I was a kid. They were great reading and were almost always accompanied by large, full color illustrations by noted artists like Syd Mead that fleshed out the words out surprising detail. In virtually every case, despite much of the turmoil going on in our country in the 1970s, those articles painted a picture of a better, brighter future. Now more than a third of the way through the second decade of the 21st century, we all know that things didn’t turn out quite the way those old articles imagined but that doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to predict what is coming. I can’t help but think that a better tomorrow really is right around the corner.
Bob Jones is startled out of his sleep at 8:30 AM by the beeping of his alarm clock and makes his way into the bathroom for a shower and a shave. Monday mornings are the same as they have always been and he knows he has a long four-day work week ahead of him. So much of the America that his grandparents knew is gone. The five day work week has been abolished, the smoke belching factories moved offshore and the din of traffic eliminated by electric motors and a new kind of urban planning that has brought people closer together. Countless millions of jobs were eliminated in the move away from industry, but increased access to information and the efficiencies of automated production have changed the way the economy works. To be sure there is still poverty in places and still work to be done. Children must be educated, customers served, systems maintained and improved and in the case of Government, paper pushed.
After he is showered and dressed, Bob grabs a cup of coffee and a piece of toast and spends a few minutes looking over the news on his countertop before making his way out to the garage. Bob is fortunate, and although much of humanity has gravitated towards larger cities and new, walkable communities Bob lives in an immense century-old house in what was once an affluent suburb. When it was built, the house had a massive four car garage but as cars became more automated and evolved into a public utility, most of these old garages had been converted into living space. In Bob’s house, huge windows stand where two of the three garage doors once stood but, because Bob lives so far outside of the city and owns his own “autocar,” he chose to keep a one part of the old house as an actual, functioning garage.
The concept of a car as a status symbol is all but gone and cars are about as anonymous as a dish washer. For the most part, people rely on automated cars as a part of the public infrastructure in the way that people once relied on taxi cabs. Summoned to the house within minutes at the touch of a button, they are generally used for mid-range trips, places too far to walk but too close for train or air travel. Bob lives far enough off the grid that owning his own car makes sense, but even so it is tied into the network and its operation is outside of his control for everything except emergencies.
The car opens its door as Bob approaches and he slides easily into the little vehicle. Because he has a wife and son, the car is a mid size model that can comfortably seat up to four people. Bob’s seat is firm but its shape conforms under his weight as his body presses against its gel filled surface. In front of him he finds a large touch screen already on and displaying the same page he was viewing on the kitchen table. He takes a glance at the car’s vitals displayed in the upper corner of the screen, ensuring that the vehicle is fully charged, and then slips into his seatbelt.
The car itself is lightly constructed, made of composite materials and has huge windows. There is a crash cage and numerous air-bags hidden behind the interior panels, but the chances of an accident are virtually nil given the way the car connected to the network. As the seatbelt clicks home, the garage door rises and the little car moves automatically out onto the road. Usually it turns left out of the driveway, but today it goes right to avoid a slowdown that the network has detected and accelerates smoothly up to the speed limit. It makes no stops as it cruises through the neighborhood and the computer ensures that other cars are cleanly avoided as it crosses through the various intersections between Bob’s home and the entrance to the freeway.
When the car reaches the on-ramp, it accelerates smoothly up the incline and merges flawlessly into traffic, tucking itself neatly into the line just inches away from the car ahead of it in order to take advantage of the aerodynamic effects of drafting. As it cruises along effortlessly, Bob enjoys the morning news and entertainment report on his touch screen, barely noticing the outside world as it whizzes past. Fifteen minutes after he leaves home, Bob’s car exits the freeway, makes its way across town and pulls silently up to the curb in front of his office. The car pauses to let him out prior to turning and heading back for home. Now in town, Bob won’t be needing a car until it is time to make the trip home after six hours of work and his wife Susan has plans for the afternoon.
Bob’s office is like the car, bright, light and airy. He works for the county government, working with contractors to help ensure they understand how to navigate the building permit process and ensuring that local codes are taken into consideration as a part of the planning process. He has four appointments on his schedule and before the first man shambles into his office at 10 AM he has already had the opportunity to review the plans with one of the building inspectors. The meeting goes well, the required data has been gathered by the computer system during the application process and the building site checked through the county’s map database and crosschecked through satellite imagery. The builder wants a couple of exceptions to the plan and is prepared to offer a couple of concessions to get them, a taller hedge in place of some setback and a cutout in the sidewalk to facilitate deliveries. In the end the two men negotiate an agreement that serves both the public and the builder, something a strict computer program could never do and both sides leave the process feeling positive about their interaction. A similar meeting follows and the morning is complete.
At lunch, Bob pops down to the local café. The service is personal but much of the actual cooking is automated. The result of increased automation has been less food borne illness and increased freshness but the downside is lack of local flavor. To be sure, Bob knows it isn’t the same as home cooking, but when has eating at a restaurant ever been home cooking? There are plenty of ways for Bob to stay connected while he eats, a television in the corner, displays integrated into the tabletop and Bob’s own telephone means he can effectively do anything he wants. Bob opts for the table display where he reads the latest Hollywood gossip, checks the scores and even orders a refill for his coffee via the tabletop console. When he is done, his bill is displayed on the same screen and he pays it by waving his telephone over the display prior to returning to work.
The afternoon goes smoothly and at 4:00 Bob’s work day is over. Because the car is taking Bob’s son to his afternoon music lessons, Bob decides to hire a car to take him home. Since he is in the city Bob finds a row of cars waiting at the curbside with their doors open. He chooses a small one-person car and climbs in. This car is smaller than Bob’s own four seater, in fact Bob’s grandparents wouldn’t even call it a car.
Technically the car is an enclosed three-wheeled motorcycle. Thanks to computer controls it maintains perfect composure and quickly counters Bob’s weight as he climbs in. Inside it is a little tighter than his own, larger car, but thanks to its full glass canopy still feels light and open. The car pauses there by the curb as Bob belts himself in then, accesses the data in its passenger’s phone to get the specific destination once Bob tells it to take him home. Like all cars, this one doesn’t need to stop for lights or worry about encountering traffic jams. It heads to the freeway without incident and runs right up to speed while Bob checks his email and orders Chinese take-out for dinner.
Because this little car tilts in the curves Bob eventually decides to switch off the screen and spend his time looking out the window. Once, there had been only three lanes of traffic on this same road, but the autocar needs no margin for error and no breakdown lane so now six lanes occupy the same space. Even so, it seems like overkill as most cars run in tight formations in the leftmost lanes, only using the other lanes to run up to speed prior to merging or to slow prior to exiting. Because Bob’s screen is switched off, the car knows he is looking out the window and moves to the front of the formation in order to afford him the best view.
The road rushes towards him as he heads out of the city, past some of the smaller walkable communities built to resemble old world townships complete with public edifices that resemble old Roman Forums or medieval castles and narrow paths more suited to foot traffic than motor vehicles. As an urban planner, Bob knows all about how these spaces evolved and how they are linked to one another through a sophisticated transportation network, but even he is a little dismayed by the odd way that developers have chosen to incorporate ancient architectural styles as a part of their design. Some people, he knows, find them charming but to him the cities seem more like amusement park sets than real functioning communities. Hopefully, their designs age as gracefully as the cities they mimic.
Well before Bob’s exit the car shifts right and begins to slow. At his exit it drops off the freeway and leans hard over as it pulls through the intersection at the bottom of the ramp moving right at the speed limit. The gyro brings the car back upright and it moves silently through the neighborhood until it stops at the end of Bob’s own driveway. The screen comes alive and flashes the fare for the ride but Bob ignores it as the paltry sum is already deducted from his account. As he unlocks the door his Chinese food arrives piping hot and ten minutes after that his wife Susan and son make their return as well.
After dinner, Bob and Susan relax on their patio and enjoy drinks while their car drives their son to a friend’s 10 minutes away. Despite the inconvenience of living so far outside of the city, the garden is the real reason they purchased the home and they talk over the day’s event in the golden afternoon light while on the hedgehog size lawn robots roam relentlessly back and forth emitting ultrasonic sounds to drive away moles and other burrowing creatures and ensuring that every blade of grass is perfectly trimmed to the correct length. As the sun goes down, the houselights come slowly on, increasing in brightness so gradually that Bob and Susan hardly notice them.
Eventually, as the sounds of the night begin to rise outside of the bright lighted area of the yard, Bob and Susan head back into the house for an evening of video entertainment. The main screen shows the hottest drama and Susan is engrossed by the action. Bob, meanwhile, watches his own programming on his tablet taking only enough notice of the drama so that he can discuss it with his wife once it is over. At about 8:00, Bob and Susan’s son returns from his friend’s house and begins his own night time routine of bath and bed. By 10:00 both Bob and Susan are tired and, after checking their email one final time, head to bed. The day has been a busy one and Bob looks back across the things he was able to accomplish with some pride. He drifts off to sleep satisfied that he has helped make his own part of the world a little better place. Time will tell if he made the right decisions.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.