On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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The technologies were in place before the legislation caught up, of course. That’s always the way. Seek forgiveness rather than ask permission, and then watch the lawyers swarm in like flies on dog crap.
Fully self-driving cars, without the need for human intervention either physically or legally, were an inevitability once all the pieces were available. Governments took the opportunity to pass strict carpooling laws at the same time, and suddenly, within the space of seven years or so, we had a massively-augmented transit system, where individual vehicle owners were responsible for all the mechanical upkeep.
Cars became like short-term rental properties, with people brokering rides online to maximise usage and avoid under-occupancy boundary charges. And with everything being electric, we could at least lie to ourselves about the environmental impact, even as seasons grew hotter and hotter.
The hardest part to believe was that most of the world passed equivalent legislation to allow autonomous vehicles within the same few years. The west was broadly first, of course, starting in the new world and filtering eastwards, and then the far east, and everyone else falling in line afterwards. Vehicle makers were less than happy about the requirement for multiple occupancy, but they realised the other opportunities for profit, and capitalised on them as always.
After the vehicles became legal, they hit the road the same day, software pre-installed on conventional electric vehicles and remotely toggled into operation. Switch On and Sit Back, the awareness campaign said. Less than two weeks later, we had the first interesting side-effect.
The woman’s name was Ria Brett, and she was a hardy, spirited, independent eighty-four-year-old who still got out and about on her own; a state of affairs more than sufficient to earn the labels of hardy, spirited and independent for a woman of her years. She had proudly acquired a self-driving vehicle on switch-on day, and local media even ran a story about her heading out to visit her grandchildren without the need of a bus pass.
Her usage of the car was short-lived, though, because twelve days later she set out once again to visit those same grandchildren, and when the car dutifully pulled up outside the home of Ria’s son and her daughter-in-law, on time as always, the family was rather surprised to find that the old woman was dead.
The media agencies had a field day, inevitably. Each country and language came up with its own term, but in the fullness of time within the media cycle — something approaching forty-eight hours — it had been decided that such a circumstance would earn for the vehicle the title of God’s Taxi.
The equivalents in non-English languages were quaint and picturesque too. Door-to-door hearse was popular in Japan. The French had something like final voyage. A handful of middle eastern countries favoured fresh delivery. And so on. But the message was the same, and the waggish cartoon strips continued for weeks on end.
Parody musicians wrote their disposable songs. Stodgy politicians made lame jokes, and then laughed red-faced at each other. Late-night hosts were as excited as a toddler going to the zoo. English teachers gleefully trotted out the zeugmatic exemplar: Ria and her driving license expired yesterday.
Every action must have a reaction, and so the worst bedfellows of contemporary culture — programmers and corporate indemnity lawyers — put their heads together to try and work out how to offset the devastatingly bad optics of these inevitable occurrences. South Korea ran a TV ad showing an artfully perspiring but grateful young single mother of a newborn, pulling up at a hospital entrance having already given birth in her self-driving vehicle on the way. The campaign was rightly derided, spoofed, and remixed into oblivion, including a particularly popular knock-off showing a cheerful grandfather getting into his autonomous black car and asking it to take him to his own funeral service.
License agreement updates popped into view on billions of in-car displays, requiring acceptance before further travel, making it clear that the manufacturer was in no way responsible for any action or inaction in the event of the coincidental death of a passenger. Simultaneously, programmers and hardware engineers worked furiously on a means to periodically verify that a vehicle’s occupants were all still alive. Software updates were pushed out globally, and were applied silently overnight.
It took six hours for the first reports to come in of millions of autonomous hearses redirecting themselves from churchyards and crematoria to hospital emergency departments, having quite correctly determined that a vehicle occupant had shuffled off this mortal coil.
Ambulances were delayed, police were called out, puzzled mourners were left in the lurch, and programmers were called back immediately from accrued days off to work on the bug. This time, the goal was to ensure that a passenger’s state of life or death had not changed during the ride.
Again, the editorial cartoonists thanked the fates, and the phrase ghost in the machine briefly trended in global searches and social media. Everyone over the age of fifty made a joke about grandma keeping them waiting not just in life but in death too.
More software updates were pushed out, CEOs of vehicle makers were hauled before enquiry panels, and an enterprising young woman was sued for selling four hundred thousand units of a t-shirt showing the grim reaper sitting atop a self-drive model of a major marque’s flagship saloon. In London, there was even a spate of minor vandalism whereby autonomous luxury vehicles had their hood ornaments removed and replaced with St Christopher’s medals.
Suffice it to say that a good time was had by all.
Ultimately, further license and usage agreement updates appeared on so many displays, mandatory as usual, and a compromise was agreed upon: whenever the vehicle detected a passenger who hadn’t previously travelled in it, that passenger was required to explicitly address the issue.
Two destinations were required: the intended one, and an optional alternate location they’d like to be delivered to in the event that they didn’t survive the ride.
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