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Car Wreck: The Ahtwoo Autonomous Car

Updated: May 6, 2020

Google is working on self-driving cars, and they seem to work. People are so bad at driving cars that computers don’t have to be that good to be much better.”

-Marc Andreesen

Neighbor and friend Jack has an old 1965 Ford Mustang in his garage. Jack is very proud of his car, as he should be. He keeps the first car he’s owned in excellent shape by seldom driving it, polishing it regularly, and showing it to anyone with the least bit of interest. With the cover off, one can sit in the driver’s seat and let the car transport you magically back toward your youth.

By today’s standards, Jack’s ’65 Mustang is basic transportation with few creature comforts. It has no cup holders, no heated seats, no built-in Bluetooth, no map display, no electric windows or seats, and no air conditioning. But in its day, this hot little red Mustang was a real chick magnet.

By his own admission, Jack tells of talking to his Mustang. Sometimes before bed, he’ll head to the garage and lean up against time. “Do you remember when we were cruising along the coast on 101? Just you, me, and Carla? All your windows open and how the salted wind would throw Carla’s long blonde hair up and around her eyes. She’d look at me with her free spirit smile. Then you’d pull us over to a roadside vista, and we’d sit on your hood, just the three of us watching the pounding surf, and she’d put her head on my shoulder as you kept our butts warm.”

The Mustang doesn’t answer Jack’s questions, and Carla is long gone. Carla became Jack’s first wife. Jack managed to hang on to the Mustang but not Carla. Sometimes ‘first’ is significant, and sometimes it isn’t. Jack never brings up Carla, nor do I think he ever talks to her. If asked, he’ll make some complimentary comments about her but quickly change the subject.

I have to admit I’m a bit envious of Jack. He had the foresight to hang on to a piece of his history. I quickly sold my first car for a van so I could transport my kids and pregnant wife. Perhaps I wasn’t as sufficiently sentimental in appreciating the value of the past as I was in producing the future. Jack has his own car show in his garage while I have to pull over when folks in old cars all gather in a parking lot. They gather with their full white beards and pot bellies and silver-haired Carla or the one that came after. They talk car talk and admire each others’ piece of history and the stories that follow. Judging from the laughter and smiles, they appear genuinely happy doing this for hours.

Eventually, I believe a ‘car’ gene unique to guys will be discovered. After all, genetic researchers discover new genetic switches nearly every day. Like all endeavors of scientific inquiry, the more we learn, the more we learn we know so little. But we soldier on so perhaps one day the body of knowledge will be considered ‘settled’ and no need to keep poking around. I can see the headline now: ‘98% of Genetic Researchers Convinced We Know Enough.’ Dollars to donuts, they discovered a ‘rational thought’ gene and found that not all humans possess it. Not even some of them. Rattled and depressed by the collapse of their firmly held theories and biases, they circle their wagons and quickly declare victory.

Today, it’s just my theory that men are fascinated by cars because it’s part of our genetic makeup. I’m convinced there is an actual gene, but just 98 percent convinced. I’m holding back the 2 percent because I know these two sisters who grew up on a farm and built themselves a mud hog. That’s a four-wheel-drive SUV with all the doors taken off, the top removed, a roll bar they welded on, and big tires mounted so as not to get stuck. Then they’d spend hours on the farm trying to get stuck and flinging mud and chasing pigs and getting their pretty little faces all mud packed.

Now, if you’re a committed car enthusiast, you are not going to ignore what the auto industry is currently calling an automobile. You visit car dealers to stay up with the Jones who just drove up with a brand-new car they claim can park itself. It’s beautiful, so I call up Jack and suggest we take a trip down to a couple of new car dealers to check out these new ‘robot’ cars. He’s an easy sell when it comes to cars, so we compare our massively empty smartphone calendars and settle on a date. A guy date, if you will, to kick some tires. Do I dare ask him if we can take his Mustang?

Tuesday morning right at 10, I hear a horn out front. It’s my date. Jack’s got a big smile on his face as I crawl into the passenger seat. He’s got the 8-track cranked open to the Beach Boys. As we rumble through our neighborhood, a couple of local gal joggers give us a second look. It’s still a chick magnet.

Looking like a couple of geezers desperately hanging on to some vestige of youth, we swing into the dealership. Tall lightposts dot the lot with a square two-story glass building right in the middle. Above the entry, a huge banner hangs from corner to corner. ‘Take a Test Sleep in the New AhtWoo Autonomous Electric Car.” Jack pulls in and parks.

Back when dinosaurs roamed, car sales folks manually observed tire kickers and plugged in their observations of age, the way you walk, and what you drove up in. A couple of old farts faking some testosterone swagger driving up in a bright red ’65 Mustang must be living the good life. But today, we have sophisticated algorithms that include a much greater volume of information.

In some darkened data center at the AhtWoo headquarters in South Korea is a display with all my data. Using facial recognition, Ms. Lee already knows my age, my reported income, my political leanings based on my Internet history, the results of my last prostate exam, and how well I slept last night based on the data captured from my Bluetooth watch. Page after page of information gleaned from thousands of digital sources scrolls down her screen. What is public is public and what is private is public. Even the government is helpless, despite their pathetically weak attempts to protect individual privacy. Fifty years ago, people cared about their privacy. Not anymore.

Billions of dollars have been pocketed by a few technoids who have convinced companies that everyone fits neatly into an algorithm. If you know just enough about someone, you can predict their behavior with near certainty. Advertisers flood these folks with boatloads of cash, and soon, algorithm-generated junk mail hits my inbox and mailbox and ‘txt’ box and pops up over another advertisement on my favorite websites. Ever since I’ve reached the magic age, AARP sends me crap nearly every day that I place in my garbage can. Off to the landfill it goes. It’s not that I mind growing older. I just don’t need someone always reminding me of that.

The showroom is an all-white cavernous space with white tile floor and doorless exits to rooms in the back. Nothing competes visually with the chrome and the leather and the aluminum of the all-new AhtWoo electric car. Except for a couple of glass stem tables containing printed literature, the room contains just three cars, each a slight variation of the other. One is white, one is black, and one is silver.

Maybe a half dozen salespeople mill around, each dressed in absolute black. No deviation. If they wear glasses, they wear black rim glasses. The shoes are black. All wear black leather gloves. I assume they don’t want to leave fingerprints on the new cars or catch a cold from a sneezing customer. I poke Jack. “Welcome to the future, Jack. I think your Mustang might feel a little out of place in here.” Frankly, so do I.

An attractive woman with standard-issue black hair and black lipstick and large black false eyelashes and a very tight black bodysuit meant to display her curvacious features approaches us and offers us her gloved hand. “Very nice to meet you,” she says. “I’m Veronica, your product guide today. Would you both like to take a test sleep?” She smiles a bit provocatively, knowing that sounds a little suggestive. But it is not politically correct today to say or think of any sexual connotation to her question. I squeeze with all my brain to suppress my inclination toward those thoughts until I finally succeed. Sometimes I wish I was more literal.

Jack’s going to let me be the spokesperson. Big mistake. So I say, “Yes, Jack and I are looking forward to bedding down in one of these . . . ,” and I start talking real slow so I don’t accidentally fall into politically incorrect speech and suggest something of a sexual nature. “ . . . electric sweethearts.” Geez! Did I just say that? As if I get a do-over, I finish, “ . . . electric gender-neutral autonomous automobiles or robots or whatever you call them.”

Fortunately, Veronica is possibly more focused on earning a commission than lodging a sexual harassment complaint with the Bureau of Safe Speech and Harassment Identification (SSHI). Any indiscretion is punishable with a jail sentence. She ignores my poor judgment, but Jack’s about to cut a gut.

“Gentlemen, the first thing I need you to do is to take your smartphones and go to your app store. Download the AhtWoo app, sign in using your email address, and open it. That will give you the ability to fully enjoy the features of the new AhtWoo fully automated self-driving electric car. This way, please.” And Veronica heads us out the front doors to a beautiful silver AhtWoo with its doors automatically swinging open.

Veronica walks us around this magnificent piece of technology and aluminum, explaining its exterior features. She points to barely observable spots where sensors and cameras are mounted, all connected to the master computer. She then instructs us into the back seat while she takes the passenger side. Jack hesitates for a moment when he notices that the AhtWoo has no steering wheel. He mutters something about not knowing if he can trust this thing.