Nathaniel Droyer raps his thumb against the bottom of the leather-clad steering wheel of his three-year old SASPER sedan as it carries him down I-10 east just outside of New Orleans. The electric blue gauges cast a dim illumination into the car, but it is drowned out by the conglomerate glow of headlights and taillights leaking from outside. Nate normally drives himself, but he’s exhausted from a long day in Baton Rouge, and he can barely keep himself awake. He has to do at least that much, as he doesn’t trust autocruise quite as much as others seem to. He needs to keep an eye on the car, just in case.
This is undoubtedly more boring than actually driving, but if he does fail to control his fatigue and drift off into some state of slumber, the consequences will be far less dire this way. After all, Nate is very familiar with the statistics: last year there were just over 5 million traffic accidents caused by drivers of traditional cars, and only about 600 accidents total with a SASPER self-driving car at fault. Considering their 22% market penetration, 600 accidents was a drop in the barrel.
Nate knows that statistics don’t lie, but he doesn’t want to become one of the marginal 600. Paranoia is a major problem of his, but understanding, and consequently not trusting technology had gotten him this far. He is on year 31 of his miraculous streak of not succumbing to death, after all.
Paranoia and willpower can only do so much to keep Nate awake, though. He is almost back to the hotel, he knows if he can just hold out another 10 minutes, he’ll be able to rest safely in the bed he’d slept in for the past few days. But the weight of his eyelids seems impossible to overcome.
“What could go wrong in 10 minutes anyway?” he reassures himself.
Nate is abruptly awakened by the nightmarish sound of metal scraping, crunching, and compacting. His car is stopped, and the display shows a string of notifications he’d not been awake to see.
“Impending collision detected.”
“External collision detected.”
Nate looks out the windshield and tries to discern what had happened. He reaches out to the display and slides his finger across each notification.
“This city and its motherfucking drivers,” he groans. For as much as he didn’t trust his SASPER car, he was glad to have it in this place. He fumbles for the door release and clicks the slider back. The door pushes itself outward with a whir, then slides forward. Nate exits the car, casually muttering, “headlights on.”
He makes his way closer to the accident. Other cars are whizzing by, seemingly unfazed by the wrinkled up transportation cans. Nate wonders what he would’ve done had he been driving; if he would’ve stopped had his SASPER car not automatically done so to avoid being involved in this very wreck. Probably not, he thinks. He doesn’t particularly care for blood. Or death.
His eyes are drawn to movement in one of the vehicles – an old car with sharp lines that belie subtle curves. Nate studies it for a moment, decides it has – or had – a certain boring charm, but is now sporting thousands of dollars of front end damage.
The driver door swings open, and a pale man steps out, clutching onto the roof of the car for support. He’s dizzy, maybe. Or just too shaken to stand on his own. His clothes are ill-fitting; the shoulders of his shirt much too big, his pants drowned his legs.
“Are you okay?” Nate calls out. The man doesn’t respond. Nate decides that if the man can stand, he’ll probably be alright sooner or later, so he diverts his attention to the other car. This one has no lines, no flat surfaces, nothing sharp. It is glossy, it has curves that beget curves, endlessly. It is compact, a coupe, and makes no excuses for its lightweight design. Despite the damage to the rear driver’s side panel, it is beautiful. A throwback to yesteryear, reminiscent – however ironically so – to sports cars that were meant to be driven.
“A SASPER 7? No way…” Nate says. He rushes over to it, ignoring the man from the other car. He forces his sight through the darkly tinted windows for signs of life inside, but the body he makes out is still. Nate backs up, reaches under the door to the rocker panel, and finds one of the emergency door release buttons that’s recessed into the underside. If the SASPER 7’s computer was still working properly, it should’ve registered a collision and unlocked the doors automatically. That doesn’t mean the door will still work, though.
The door reluctantly releases and begins sliding forward, but the damage is apparently more serious than just the outer panel, and the door sticks halfway open. Nate briefly considers how much force it must’ve taken to bend the frame of a SASPER car, but it’s a fleeting thought.
He reaches into the car’s luxurious interior, noting the smell of clean leather and the spicy base note of a cologne he almost recognizes. The man inside looks to be unconscious, but Nate isn’t qualified to make any judgements of human health.
“Hey, wake up,” Nate says. He reaches a hand out to shake the man, but realizes that he may serve to agitate a sustained injury by doing so. Frustrated, Nate mutters, “Crap,” and looks up at the SASPER’s console display. Across a shadowed gray background in clean, blue typeface were the words “EMERGENCY SERVICES CALLED” and directly below that, “EMERGENCY SERVICES DISPATCHED.”
There’s nothing more Nate can do about this man’s well-being, but…
He circles the car, slides the passenger door open, and enters. “SASPER emergency mode,” Nate commands. “Accident replay.” The display in the center console cleanly transitions to a video, with a wireframe overview being rendered on-the-fly in the top right corner. He watches as the old car puts on a turn signal and legally changes lanes in front of the SASPER 7. The SASPER speeds up, swerves in front of the other car, and hard brakes. The wireframe shows a side impact to the SASPER 7 and a front impact to the other car, noting that autocruise was on the entire time, without any human intervention.
“What the hell?” Nate says, replaying the last few seconds of the video. “It was the SASPER’s fault?” It’s a statistical outlier within a statistical outlier, for more than one reason.
“SASPER emergency override,” Nate commands. “Operator code 744809. Show event logs.” The screen transitions from video to text display. It is crude; a terminal not meant for consumer eyes. Nate filters the logs, collapsing everything that wasn’t in the 60 seconds prior to the accident.
The event codes don’t make any sense. Nate furrows his brow, flicks his finger across the screen, pinches and zooms to examine what he’s seeing.
His eyes hadn’t deceived him.
Of the 600 recorded traffic accidents last year with a SASPER car at fault, and of all recorded traffic accidents in history involving an at-fault SASPER car, there has never been a case where a SASPER hit another car. That is to say, every at-fault SASPER accident was a single-car accident. Last year, 600 SASPER cars in autocruise mode had detected an impending accident, and had flung itself off of the road in the safest way possible – as it was programmed to do – to minimize possible causalities. All 600 accident cases involved the SASPER car, and the SASPER car alone.
This was the first time in their 9-year history outside of factory testing that a SASPER car has hit another car. The SASPER clearly made a decision based on its very complicated accident-avoidance algorithms to involve another car. As much as Nate couldn’t believe it, the event logs show it as plain as a cloudless, sunny spring afternoon.
Nate didn’t trust SASPER cars, but he knew the accident-avoidance algorithm’s logic was sound. He’d sat through so many conferences, board meetings, compliance hearings…God, too many to think about. Every engineer in the company had pored through the code with a fine-toothed comb, analyzed every bit that had a potential to cause an issue. The head engineers wrote line-by-line documentation of the code. Change control was strict; those meetings were a nightmare.
But just as Nate’s paranoia defies his own logic, here it has seemingly been justified. Did the SASPER purposely cause a wreck? There are no alerts in the logs, nothing to indicate that this wreck had been caused due to avoidance of some other possible collision event.
Nate steps out of the car and cranes his neck in search of the driver of the other car. He’s still standing there, pale as paper is white, just staring into space.
“Hey! This car hit you, right?” Nate voice is more commanding than he intends.
The pale man pivots his head like an oscillating fan.
“This car caused the accident?”
“Y…yeah. It swerved…in front of me.”
“Any idea why?”
“No. It…it was really random. Like, for no reason.”
Nate knows computers don’t do anything without a reason.
He pulls out his PerCom, surveys the SASPER with suspicious eyes as he speaks. “Iris, is Kat busy?”
“Kat is available,” the PerCom says. “Should I contact her?”
“Yes, by phone please.”
“Calling Kat now.”
Nate anxiously waits for Kat’s voice.
“Kat, I need a favor.”
“Jesus, Nate, can’t you say hi first?”
“Sorry, I uh…it’s important.”
“I’m standing five feet away from a SASPER 7. I need you to pull its SASPERnet logs as soon as you possibly can.”
“You know I can’t do that without an authorization from the owner.”
“I have access to the computer. I’ll override the authorization request.”
“You know I’m not a fan of ethically murky requests.” Kat pauses. “How do you have access to a SASPER 7 anyway? There are only 49 of those in the country.”
Nate bites his lip. “You won’t believe me until you see the logs.” The PerCom vibrates lightly in his hand as a notification for a location request pops up. He approves the request, allowing Iris to send Nate’s GPS coordinates to Kat.
“You’re freaking me out a little.”
“It’s warranted. Trust me.”
Silence creeps into the conversation for several seconds.
“You’re in Metairie, Louisiana?”
“Well, there are no other SASPER 7’s in the state, so this ought to be easy to pinpoint.”
Nate hears a siren in the distance. He glances over at the pale guy that’s drowning in his own clothes, then slides back into the passenger seat of the SASPER. The man in the driver’s seat – if you can even call it a “driver’s” seat anymore – is still out cold. “Ready when you are.”
“It’s pinging SASPERnet. The authorization request has been sent.”
Nate sees the notification pop up onto the screen. It pulses blue and white, trying to get the driver’s attention. For whatever reason, this guy had turned off the SASPER’s voice assistant.
“SASPER emergency override. Operator code 744809.” The screen flashes to a console, then back to the authorization notification. Nate does not hesitate. “Authorization approved, send logs now. Grant root access, wipe 10 minutes’ previous access records on completion. Confirm operator code 744809.” The display transitions to a progress bar, completes transmitting the logs, flashes once to indicate root access, and then goes back to emergency notification mode: “EMERGENCY SERVICES CALLED, EMERGENCY SERVICES DISPATCHED.”
“Got the logs,” Kat says.
“Thanks, I owe you one.”
“Now, are you going to tell me what this is all about?”
Nate exits the wrecked SASPER and begins walking to his own. “This SASPER 7 caused a wreck involving another car.”
Kat is silent for a moment. “How is that possible?”
“You tell me. You’ve got the full autocruise logs.”
“Holy shit Nate, this is bad.”
“No Kat, this isn’t bad,” Nate says, looking back at the victim of the wreck, who has slightly regained some color. “This is way fucking worse than that.”