Friday, March 1, 2019

Follow That Car by James Paul Close

James Paul Close foresees a fundamental problem with self-driving taxis.

I could hardly say, "Follow that car," so what else was I going to do?

I simply said "Amsterdam Avenue," because I knew it was the same direction the car in front was heading. It was late, I had just left the nightclub, and I was feeling quite tipsy. Needless to say, things didn't go to plan. The autotaxi replied with its off-the-peg voicefile, sounding all cheap and synthetic. "Amsterdam Avenue is only zero point two miles away from your current location. Travelling short distances will incur the minimum fee of twenty dollars. Do you wish to proceed?"

"Yes, dammit, go!" I barked.

I had to catch that car in front. It was getting away, the rear lights of the silver Mercedes blurring into the rain-soaked night. It was a classic model - manually driven - and I could just about make out all five silhouettes; especially his large frame filling the driver's seat. That was definitely them.

Suddenly, the car swerved at the first junction.

"Turn right."

The cab replied: "Are you sure you would like to turn right? It is not the most direct route to your destination."

"Yes, turn right." Phew, I got the message across in time. But jeez, he was turning right again? I tried a different tactic to reroute, hoping it might be quicker: "135th street, please."

"135th street is only zero point one miles away from your current location. Travelling short distances will incur the minimum fee of twenty dollars. Furthermore, changing destination mid-route will incur an additional re-routing fee of five dollars. Do you wish to proceed?"

"Yes, please." What the hell was a re-routing fee? And why in the hell was I being polite, when all I wanted to do was swear at the damn car?

Still, thankfully, I had clear sight of the car now. But then suddenly, he swung left - no signal, no indicators, nothing. He was either an awful driver, or he was trying to lose me.

I rerouted again. "Broadway."

"Broadway is only zero point two miles away..." I started to panic. Shit. It was going to take too long listening to this same damn message. "Travelling short distances," the taxi continued, "will incur the minimum fee..."

"Yes, reroute you fucking stupid taxi."

Then the taxi really began to piss me off. "Whilst verbal abuse against this autotaxi is not a violation of the legally binding terms & conditions of this vehicle, any physical damage is a criminal offence, and carries a maximum penalty of twenty thousand dollars."

I sank down. For some stupid reason the computer made me feel like a naughty schoolgirl.

Shit. We overshot.

"Take the next left," I said sheepishly. I stuck to that car like anything, barking out the orders as the taxi surplused me with countless rerouting instructions.

Finally, thirty minutes later, the silver Mercedes stopped. The car pulled over on a terrace of brownstones, parking outside the only house with all the lights blazing. The occupants got out of the car, running across the rain-splattered street and banging on the door.

"This is my destination." I told the taxi. "Thanks."

"That will be one hundred and seventeen dollars and thirty four cents please." Shit. I could have cried. I held back the tears and opened my handbag.

Where the hell was my purse? My phone? I searched all over the back of the taxi; emptied my handbag all over the damn floor. I even apologised to the taxi for taking so long. Where the hell was my purse? Someone must have robbed me whilst in the nightclub, I realised. My friends are always telling me to keep a closer eye on my stuff. I wish I had listened to them.

I started crying. I could see the tears reflected in the rear-view mirror. (Why did it still have one?) They were messing up my mascara even worse than the rain. It was running all down my cheeks.

"I haven't got any money. I lost my purse," I sobbed.

"Refusing to pay a taxi fare is a criminal offence. Failure to pay will result in an excess fine. Pease refer to the terms & conditions that you will find helpfully printed on the inside of the passenger doors."

"But I haven't got any mo-"

The car interrupted with a brighter expression: "You could use your mobile phone to call a friend!"

"Oh you fucking piece of crap..." I lashed out, punching the dashboard so hard it hurt my hand.

"Any damage to this taxi is a criminal offence, and carries a maximum penalty of twenty thousand dollars. Please refrain from assaulting this vehicle."

That was too much. I decided to leave, yanking the door handle. Nothing. Damn. The taxi had locked the doors.

"Leaving this taxi without paying is a criminal offence. We are legally entitled to lock the doors when the fair exceeds one hundred dollars. If you believe you are in immediate danger, you may request the emergency services. If you do not pay within the next 30 minutes, security services will be summoned, incurring an extra thousand dollars surcharge."

I ended up waiting two hours, alone in that damn cab. By the time the police turned up, I had sobered up. They were really sweet about it, and even managed to waiver, the callout surcharge with the press of a button, putting it down to a "technological malfunction."

By this time, the party had really got going. The presence of the police got everyone's attention. A small crowd gathered around my taxi - including all the occupants of the Mercedes. They were all listening as I explained. Even worse, I was looking like a panda; makeup all down my face. It was the most embarrassing moment of my life. I just wanted the ground to swallow me up.

It should have been so simple, I explained to the police. It just sounded like it was going to be an awesome party. Some friends were going along... but I had only just been introduced to the guy who was driving. He was tall, charming and a bit older. He hadn't been drinking and was being sensible about taking only four passengers. So I said I would follow in a cab, and my friends had scribbled the address on a scrap of paper for me. The problem was the rain. When I crossed to the taxi-rank, the paper got soaked. By the time I got into the cab, the pen had run. It was unreadable. What else could I do?

As I finished relaying my ordeal to the little crowd, the driver of the Mercedes looked at me - looking all tall and suave - and said: "Now that, my dear, is why I don't take cabs these days."

6 comments:

  1. Wow, an example of the first world problems piling up every day. Interesting story re: pros and cons of new technology. Big Brother cab. Makes you think, how much control are these self driving cars going to have? All I can say is if I didn't have GPS in England two years ago, I'd still be there trying to find my way out!

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  2. Humorous and, unfortunately, very believable. Good fun!

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  3. Brilliant. Really great dialogue and you capture a techo voice perfectly. We all can relate to this new "villain." One suggestion: The second last paragraph, which explains the whole situation, kind of breaks the flow. I would sprinkle that info somewhere else throughout the story. But overall, really great read.

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  4. a very well written story, not usually my type of story but it drew me in, I wanted to know what happened. also a telling warning to over reliance on modern technology
    Mike McC

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  5. I really liked this story, it was amusing and also made me think about the future of driverless cars in a new way. This so could be the way of things to come!

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  6. Thank you James for writing this beautiful story. I think this is the third tale I read on FOTW about self-driving cars. I must say that I love them and I hope writers will submit more stories like this one.

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