The Parable of the Drivers
This is a story about a parallel world that’s just about — this far — ahead of where we are now.
You are there, yes, a version of you, but you’re different. In that world, you have a sadness about you. People feel it. There’s a distance in your eyes that nobody can touch.
You carry around an unopened, shop-bought pack of Tarot cards, a first-aid kit and a bottle of water, always water. You don’t possess a car.
You know what’s coming, don’t you? Over there, you sense it.
This story is for you.
We begin on a clear day in a Summer month, above a motorway. There’s dense traffic below us, jammed until a moment ago but beginning to move again.
See those intelligent robots clearing away the barriers and the bollards?
They’ve just completed their installation of wifi-enabled cat’s eyes.
This is the M25, yes.
London’s orbital motorway already has a coating of recycled plastic here, in which is embedded a “smart comms lattice” that carries road-sign information, traffic-density reports and emergency warnings via wifi and bluetooth to autonomous cars.
The cat’s eyes are a final safety layer: nobody in a car even needs to watch the road any more.
So here we go.
When news of the robots’ initiative hits social media, one reaction catches the public’s attention above all others.
An MP calls for measures to prevent “lewd and immoral” behaviour in the tipped-back front seats of “driverless cars”, as he calls them.
There’s also a lot of stuff about the machines taking over, the lack of authorisation for the robots’ action, the cost, something about accountability and control, global warming obviously gets a mention, so does Big Brother — but all of that seems to be forgotten once the idea of “lewd and immoral” behaviour in cars goes public.
Within days, two late-night TV shows are launched, Naked at the Wheel and Driving Attraction, and less than a week later, the same MP calls for drones to be banned from the airspace above motorways.
The driving-seat passenger of an autonomous car is successfully prosecuted for painting over the windows of his car, but several new cars on show at the Paris Motor Show dispense with seats altogether — passengers share one “couch”.
In the UK as elsewhere, the driving test is abolished; car owners must download the current Highway Relationships app to their vehicle before they take to the road.
A baby is born in a traffic jam on the M11 just south of Cambridge. Road-haulage operators diversify, offering creche facilities and kitchens on their car transporters. “Just sync your car with our vehicle and drive up the ramp,” says the advertisement that runs on car dashboards.
The ad shows a young couple getting up from the couch to hit the red button and do just that. Docking’s automatic, so they don’t even have to dress before picking up their lattes from the machine in the transporter’s kitchen.
The ad goes viral.
On the roads around London, drones pursue cars, carrying high-definition cameras as well as takeaway orders, contraceptives, baby wipes, baby oil and other personal accessories.
Those TV shows are huge now.
The English government unveils a massive infrastructure project: over five years, every road in England will be coated with wifi-enabled recycled plastic.
The Scottish government announces a similar project, but with a four-year time-frame. Wales announces that roads will be replaced entirely with plastic, but only as they wear out.
And that would be the happy ending. But this is a world like ours.
Prices of recycled plastic soar on the Baltic Exchange; trawlers returning from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch report a thinning in the plastic cap — “plasticbergs” are breaking off. There are warnings of a shortage of waste plastic.
As we cocoon ourselves in our cars — with our partners and/or our accessories and our screens and our apps — smoke rises from the silent factories pumping out plastic road-surface sections and hard-use wifi components and increasingly, as the planet continues to warm, air-conditioning units.
The sky darkens. All over the world, intelligent robots haul mobile lighting rigs into place. Soon, the motorways, and increasingly the roads in cities and towns, are bathed in natural-look light.
Generators hum, replacing the solar power that’s been lost to the darkening sky.
An algorithm, driven by a faulty thermostat in a lightning-struck tower, finds a way to maintain energy output at the required level.
It must burn fossil fuels. There’s no alternative.
When the robots object, the algorithm dials their intelligence back down to a human level and sends them out to fetch timber from the last rainforest.
A blogger comments that this heatwave is like something out of a disaster movie.
On a desert road, out of a sandstorm, a car appears, worn out after its long journey, its engine crying out and then dying. The car drifts to a halt in a catchment of flies.
Out of the car, a boy climbs, fresh as the morning, a light in his eyes. The flies gather after him as he slouches towards Bethlehem to introduce himself.
On Channel Thirteen, “where the news is as real as it gets,” there’s a report of a big new conflict starting up unexpectedly in a desert somewhere.
Journalists in flak jackets flock to the world’s airports, but Megiddo International Airport is closed due to unusual solar-flare activity across the region.
In other news, an agile fast-food company, hit by a crop failure, launches a new protein snack.
The advertising spend is so enormous that the plague of locusts that’s just started up across the US Midwest goes unreported.
Once the algorithm learns to remove the wings and short legs before deep-frying, Loco-Bites become a worldwide sensation.
Omens abound. Comets whizz across the sky. Crop circles appear on suburban lawns. Four horsemen ride across the sky — but we’re all in our cars, looking at our screens — and in a silent factory producing cute little ornamental animals for cars, cooling systems fail, critical algorithms bake in the heat — and the factory starts turning out two-headed nodding dogs.
And finally — large parts of the planet’s surface become uninhabitable to warm-blooded mammals.
Insects start to mutate. A video clip goes viral in which a termite kills and eats a crocodile.
A tall thin figure in a black hooded cloak carrying a scythe is decisively no-platformed when he arrives uninvited to address a graduation ceremony at a small college in the southern United States.
The nearby nuclear reactor melts down anyway.
In the aftermath, a pale horse grazes on radioactive grass around the rubble of the college’s world-reknowned Automotive Intelligence Research Facility.
Sea levels have risen now and the coastal cities have flooded and there is no ice at the poles. As the world’s oceans continue to warm, dense fog forms over land and sea. This baffles meteorologists, who are also cocooned in their cars. They tap at their screens, looking for the software glitch.
Frogs rain from the sky.
But Frog-Bites fail. The algorithm took the legs off.
All flights are grounded; only the autonomous cars keep buzzing around, although the fog soon gets into their electronics and their engines. The roads are wet and glazed with oil. Tyres can’t grip.
Some of us find that we can’t open the doors of our cars. Even if we want to, we can’t get out.
On the last day, there’s a great crashing and grinding of gears, and a scraping of metal against metal, and the plaintive cry of a thousand car-maintenance helplines reassuring us that all their lines are busy but our call is valuable, and then the world falls silent.
And in the silence, finally, in the deep and lasting silence, we begin to hear the sounds of … what is that? Battle? Are those trumpets?
Can’t be! Don’t be ridiculous!
Car horns, surely?
And … collisions?
We live in the age of science now, after all. Science has done away with all that superstitious —