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Boomer Test Drive: 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.

The back seat is plush leather with loads of legroom and lit up like a party limo without the earth-thumping hip-hop music. A small beverage center sits in the middle with several electronic ports allowing for recharging and plugging in of electronic devices. Just then, a large widescreen TV swings down and powers up. A map lights up with what looks like the current weather conditions and an automobile status box in the opposite corner.

With our seat belts on, a soothing female voice begins our travel into the future. “Please place your smartphone in front of your face for scanning.” Veronica does as asked. “Thank you, Veronica. Please say your destination.”

Veronica says, “Interstate 9 to intersection 192 turn around and return.”

"Thank you.” The car silently engages and navigates the parking lot to the exit.

Jack and I look at each other like a couple of six-year-olds about to blast off on a space shuttle. It’s almost surreal. Traveling down a busy four-lane road and no one is at the wheel, let alone sitting in the driver’s seat. No steering wheel to tell us we’re turning. No twisting our necks to see if any traffic is coming. No looking in the mirror before hitting the turn indicator to warn others of our intentions. But our driving habits, ingrained from decades of being in control at the wheel, won’t let us relax.

We come up to a stoplight, and I nearly start yelling for the car to slow down so as not to hit the vehicle in front. But it slows down just fine and comes to a full stop without me. I’m such a backseat driver. We come up to another stoplight, which is turning yellow as we approach. This robot car comes to a perfect stop. Beyond tailgating uncomfortably, it slowly starts earning my confidence. Soon both Jack and I are relaxing in the back seat just taking in the whole experience.

Veronica is looking straight ahead. I’m beginning to wonder if she is also a robot. I am thinking that she is an attractive woman. Just then, a siren goes off in my brain, and a booming voice in my brain engages. “Suppress those thoughts immediately. Suppress those thoughts immediately!” It works but only after I turn away and imagine watching an old newsreel of a nuclear explosion. Under threat of punishment, I no longer look for opportunities to compliment women.

Robot cars have become prevalent in large urban areas, but in our smallish city, they are still rare. Drivers in a passing car or truck who notice we have no driver do a double-take. Some slow down to get a better look. Sometimes I wave from the back seat, which usually sends them on their merry way. I tell Jack that I don’t think anyone in our neighborhood has one of these cars yet. I can tell he’s thinking the same thing I am. “Well then, we need to show them one,” he says with the enthusiasm of a young Jack tooling down Highway 101 in a red Mustang with Carla resting her head on his shoulder.

We walk out of the dealership, having signed all the papers for taking the AhtWoo on a private test ride. Veronica gives us a brief talk on some of the commands we’re likely to need, and some we likely won’t. For example, the command ‘stop’ will stop the car. ‘Faster’ and ‘slower’ are valid commands. ‘Tint my window’ will tint your window to almost dark. ‘Return to dealer’ will instruct the car to return right back to where she sits. She rattles off a bunch of others that are likely critical, which I don’t remember.

If we swaggered coming in, we now turbo swagger out. The apps have been updated, declaring both Jack and me as approved certified personal transportation engineers. The only skills necessary are the ability to speak in one of seventy languages AhtWoo understands, put a seatbelt on, and be careful what you say because the sweet voice may misinterpret what is said for a command.

Jack, by habit, jumps into the driver’s seat, which will require a new name. It’s precisely like the passenger seat I jump into. I look for a button to roll down the window. No button. Jack holds his phone to his face, but nothing happens.

“Jack, I think you have to turn the phone toward you like you’re taking a selfie,” I offer.

“Oh. Ok.” Jack exchanges pleasantries with AhtWoo, and soon we’re heading toward our neighborhood. I navigate the big screen and search for valid commands. We must learn how to control this thing in the event we want to do certain things like roll the window down or pull over to take a leak or honk a greeting or stop to chat with a neighbor who would be offended if we didn’t stop to chat.

The AhtWoo pulls into Jack’s driveway just as instructed. It powers off, and the doors swing open. We both crawl out and take a slow walk around this magnificent road robot. Jack calls for Marta to have her join us. Soon she is standing next to Jack holding Jack Jr., her Jack Russell dog. I call him Fraser, and he seems ok with that. That’s when the idea hits me.

I get back into the car and let the app scan my face. Powered back up, I ask her to ‘honk.’ The car horn honks with a short burst. I say, “Honk honk,” and it honks twice. I’ve learned a command and am now ready to give it a try.

“Let’s go for a little ride down our street. I got an idea.” I smirk. We all squeeze into the back seat, including Fraser. I instruct the car to proceed ten blocks up the street slowly. Surely someone will be crossing an intersection, and hopefully, we’ll arrive at about the same time. “Darken windows,” I say, and now no one can see who is in the car, but we can see out just fine.

Sure enough, our luck couldn’t have been any better than Mrs. Knuckles standing at the intersection with her cane, about to cross. Mrs. Knuckles is possibly in her mid-eighties and lives alone, maybe five blocks away from where I live. Rumor has it that she is a retired school teacher. A hard, cold, authoritarian type who took her frustrations home with her. Her husband worked until he was seventy-eight so he wouldn’t have to be at home with her. He died a month after retiring so he wouldn’t have to be at home with her, or so the rumor goes. Some have said that she’s a bitter old woman.

The AhtWoo slows down to a stop to let her cross. Just as she’s in front of the car, I say, “Honk.” The car honks. She stops and looks at the car, expecting to see a driver, possibly someone she knows. She sees no one, just an empty car that honked at her. She proceeds. This time I say, “Honk honk.” Her look has now turned to anger as she again stops to look. This time she proceeds with a scowl on her face. If she sped up a tad after the first honk, she now has slowed down to a mere shuffle. Mrs. Knuckles is not above teaching the impatient vital lessons . . . even a driverless car.

Just as she’s about ready to mount the sidewalk on the other side, I say, “Honk.” As the AhtWoo slowly proceeds, she shuffles to turn toward us and snaps us her best big middle finger, which she holds up like the Statue of Liberty till she can’t see us anymore. Only Fraser isn’t laughing. Between her laughter, Marta calls me a sick bastard. Yes, and I’m just getting started.

It’s a beautiful Tuesday afternoon. The park, just two blocks below my house, will be busy with frisbee tossers, barbeques, and sweethearts. I tell AhtWoo to drive slowly around and then through the park.

Fraser is an intelligent little dog, and if I set him up in the driver seat with his front paws on the dash as if he were driving the car and tell him to ‘stay,’ he would stay. As we make the left turn into the park, I set up Fraser and darken the rear windows. People can see Fraser but not Marta, Jack, or me.

Fraser does a perfect job. His head peers just over the dashboard with his front paws up as if resting on a steering wheel. It looks like he’s driving. The park patrons are starting to notice. It’s the kids who find the notion of a dog driving a car the most unusual, and they’re the ones most willing to run alongside to get a better look.

Within a minute or two, the car with Fraser at the wheel is surrounded by dozens of kids. Those with smartphones are snapping pics of Fraser. The rest jump up and down and yell for their friends to come and take a look. Some are so curious they cup their eyes against the window to get a closer look. They look carefully for the steering wheel but see none. They speculate as to how the dog is able to speed up or stop the car. Clearly, he can’t reach the brake or gas pedals. Eventually, they’re pushed away by some other kids wanting a better look. They all hang around, scratching their heads.

I find a command for security. I say, “Security.” The AhtWoo responds with three short horn bursts, and then a male voice coming from outside the car says, “Please step away from the car.” The kid's yelp and screech with laughter and jump back. The voice coming from the vehicle has gotten a few adults to stop what they were doing and check it out.

Just as the adults are getting closer, I again say, “Security,” and it again honks and verbally warns. Then I say, “Security Obscure.” All we hear in the car is a hissing sound coming from below our seats, but quickly we’re enveloped in a white cloud of smoke. I can’t see, but I can hear all the screaming slowly fading. Everybody is running as fast as they can from us. Maybe it’s poison gas? I tell AhtWoo to darken windows and drive to Jack’s home. We leave the park and a whole bunch of kids with something to talk about when they get home. “Fraser, good doggie!”

I glance at my watch and suggest we get the car back to the showroom. Jack gives Marta a peck on the cheek and tells her he’ll be home shortly. It will take longer than he thinks.

I get in the driver seat this time. Still no steering wheel. Jack swings into the passenger seat. I tell AhtWoo to head us toward downtown. I want to see this robot navigate congested roads.

While AhtWoo expertly navigates us to downtown, Jack has his smartphone fired up to the car’s app. He’s checking out all the commands. “Did you know that when one says ‘weather,’ it will display the weather forecast, and if I say ‘traffic,’ it will show the local traffic on the screen?” It’s a question, but Jack says it more as a statement. Each time he says either of those words, it changes what shows on the LCD screen in the dashboard. Technology is wonderful!

I’m beginning to be concerned with what I say. If I say ‘crash,’ will AhtWoo then crash? I only think this, but one has to wonder. Will loose lips cause this thing to do things you didn’t intend?

Jack says, “Radio,” and the car comes back with, “What would you like to listen to?” Jack asks for the Beach Boys and “California Dreamin’.” In glorious Dolby theater-quality sound, the LCD plays the Beach Boys with video of some live performance recorded many years ago.

Somewhere between downtown and the freeway, Jack found the settings for language. Amazed at all the languages he could select and knowing a little German, he picked German. Soon he was saying, “Spielen sie die Beatles Lass es sein.” Sure enough, the Beatles are now playing. “Hupen,” and the horn honks. He plays around for a few minutes and then decides to head us back to the English language. Unknown to me and unintended by him, he accidentally hits Ukrainian before shutting the app off.

Maybe a mile or so before the freeway entrance, a local police officer notices us in the other lane and is quite certain that our car has no driver. This particular officer has heard and read about these new robot cars but had yet to see one up close. Not wanting to pull us over just so he can have a closer look, he imagines that we might have whistled through a yellow light. So he turns around to get behind us and turns his patrol lights on.

Driving a car that only recognizes one language, and it’s not the language you know can present some significant challenges. The sound of words can mean something in another language, and sometimes it’s the opposite of what you intended to say.

With the officer’s lights flashing and siren blaring, the AhtWoo would typically pull over to let the police car by. It has been programmed to recognize various country’s siren sounds and light patterns. Ukranian police cars use a different siren sound and lighting system, so when this American police car gets behind us, the AhtWoo has no idea what to do but to keep driving.

Veronica did tell us about the ‘pull over’ command. Simply say ‘pull over,’ and the car will slowly pull to the side and stop. So I say, ‘Pull over.’

The AhtWoo says “Я не розумію цього слова.”

Jack and I look at each other with some horror.

As we approach the freeway on-ramp, the officer gets closer to us, and I can now hear him through his loudspeaker instructing us to pull over. I keep saying, “Pull over” to the car, and it keeps answering back in Ukraine.

Jack is busy trying to get his app running so he can fix the language problem. But either his battery is about dead, or he has a hand full of thumbs and keeps hitting the wrong key. I gently encourage him to hurry.

We’re now accelerating to freeway speeds. The officer stays right with us, repeating the same thing—“Pull over. Pull over.”—with ever-increasing severity. He stays behind us, but soon there is another patrol car speeding up alongside us with lights and sirens blaring. I’m yelling at the AhtWoo to pull over, Jack is quickly but nervously attempting to change the language, and now three cop cars are in hot pursuit of what appears to be a couple of old guys running from the law.

Just as we get to our freeway exit, no fewer than six patrol cars are either alongside or behind us. They notice our blinker and abandon the call to block us off up ahead. Jack is so flustered that he’s cussing in German. “Dieses ding ist scheiße.”

Because we had told AhtWoo to return to the dealer when it still understood English, we’re heading to the dealer, towing a bunch of angry police officers with us. I’m beginning to imagine what will happen when we finally park. I’m pretty sure they won’t start shooting, but we might get roughed up a bit. I feel for my wallet. I’ll need to prove who I am. “Jack, you got your wallet?” I yell over all the sirens.

“Yep,” he replies.

As we get closer to the dealership, both Jack and I suspend our attempts to regain control. Our fate will soon be in the grip of a bunch of folks in blue with loaded guns drawn. If it wasn’t for that unknown, I think both Jack and I would be doubled over in laughter. What a ride!

Police officers also use algorithms. When a driver doesn’t stop for an officer, they assume the very worst. Showing such disrespect to an officer of the law by not stopping is no laughing matter. They quickly assume the driver is

  1. a bad guy,

  2. is likely armed,

  3. hates authority,

  4. likely just held up a bank,

  5. is whacked out on drugs,

  6. has a suspended driver’s license, or

  7. has stolen the car.

Each officer can’t wait to take another piece of debris off the road using nearly any means possible. And they’re a bit pissed at being disrespected.

“Jack, when we stop, the doors are going to swing open. Put your hands on your head and wait for their instructions. They will likely have us spread eagle on the ground, and they’ll likely treat us a bit roughly. Remember, they’re pissed. Don’t get cute.”

“Shall I tell them I’m the mayor?” asks Jack, who is actually the town’s mayor.

“You tell them what you want. Some might recognize you, Jack. Just don’t start laughing or even smile.”

The AhtWoo pulls into the dealership with great fanfare. It finds its original parking spot and eases in. The doors swing open, and we both put our hands on top of our heads. The cops park their cars to surround us. Sure enough, each opens their door and crouches behind the door with guns pulled. In all, I count eight guns aimed at us and all because we can’t speak Ukrainian.

“Exit the car and lay down on your stomach with your legs spread,” a calm, professional officer tells us over a bullhorn. We both comply. Soon officers surround us with guns pointing at our heads. One lands his knee on my back. It cracks like a visit to a chiropractor. So far, no real damage. My arms are quickly placed behind my back and handcuffed. Once handcuffed, the police start putting their guns away and relaxing.

They keep Jack and I separate while they interview us. All the sales folks looking smart, all dressed in black, are on the entry steps recording everything with their smartphones. A gentleman, who might be the dealer’s manager, hovers nearby the interviews taking copious notes. Hopefully, this experience will help the company improve its product.

A couple of officers recognize Jack as the city mayor. Having determined that we’re neither drunk nor under the influence and the car was actually out for a test sleep, the officers lighten up. Soon, we’re all laughing. The dealership is happy to get their car back without a scratch. The police escort wasn’t necessary, but all now agree it was merely a misunderstanding. No charges are filed, and even the news reporters who have materialized are laughing. One newspaper photographer asks us to stand in front of the car for a photo. We comply, each with a big smile. That’s the picture that makes the front page of the next day’s newspaper. In color.

Jack’s red Mustang starts up with a rumble. I roll down the window and push the Beach Boys 8-track back into the deck. We wave to the small crowd as we wind our way out of the dealership parking lot.

“What do you think, Jack, ready to trade this ole gal in for an AhtWoo?”

He doesn’t even answer.

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