Mr. Webb and the Google Car: Out for a Spin
A look at what riding in a driverless Google Car could be like.
A look at what riding in a driverless Google Car could be like.
My good friend Mr. I. M. Webb, always an early adopter, managed to wangle a drive through town in a Google Car well ahead of anyone else we know, and here is what he told me about his driverless adventure:
“Of course it was unnerving,” he said, “to see a car with no driver pull up in my driveway. I felt like a wagoneer afraid of a Stanley Steamer because it had no horse. But it was such a cute little gumdrop of a car that I felt it could do no harm to embark.
“Rather than a keyless entry system, the car had a little touchscreen where I was asked to accept a Terms of Service (TOS) document by tapping the ‘OK’ button. I tried reading what was on the screen but gave up after the second paragraph and figured what I always figure: by using the car, I give up any rights I might have had regarding the car, including the right to sue, to take umbrage, to expect a hearing, to be treated fairly by the car, or to claim ownership of anything and everything that might happen in or near the car as it brought me to my chosen destinations. Later I learned the TOS went even further, stating that everything I saw, said, or felt during the ride became the sole property of Google and that I would attend a ‘forgetting’ session if such was requested by Google.
“We know already that Google knows about everything we’ve searched for, and probably what we have bought, whom we have emailed and texted, what we wrote in the emails (and texts), and probably our credit score as well. But I did not take this into account as the car silently waited for me to open the door. Logging into my Google account via smartphone unlocked the car and I got in. It was comfy but no Rolls-Royce. I sat where the driver might sit but of course, there were no controls except a ‘panic’ button I hoped I would never use.
“The car began by saying ‘Hello Mr. Webb, and welcome to Google Car’ in a voice reminiscent of Siri but slightly more authoritative. ‘Where would you like to go today?’
“‘Take me to the mall,’ I said.
“‘By that I will assume you mean the Snaffle Mall on Snaffle Road?’
“‘No, I meant the Ridgeway Mall on King’s Hill.’ This was a more upscale mall than the dowdy Snaffle Mall, and I was aiming to spend some time perusing the offerings of such upscale shops like Brooks Brothers, Hermes, Tiffany, and Saks.
“‘Are you planning on buying anything there?’
“‘I’m not sure. It depends what’s on sale.’
“The car started. I could hear a tiny hum. But it did not move. After an uncomfortable silence, I asked why we were not moving.
“‘When was the last time you bought anything at Brooks Brothers?’ said Google Car.
“‘You tell me.’
“After another uncomfortable silence: ‘You never have bought anything there. Is it likely you will buy anything there on this trip?’
“I insisted I had bought shirts there but the Google Car said it had no recollection of that; and further, that my buying pattern suggested a trip to the Snaffle Mall might be more in order. I insisted on going to the Ridgeway Mall anyway. Soon, after a bit of what sounded like grumbling, the car darted away from the curb and headed off in the general direction of Ridgeway.
“Not long after we started out (and after a series of near-misses that would have frightened a less-acclimated person half out of his wits), Google Car pulled into the drive-up window lane at a local Jack-in-the-Box burgery.
“‘The sensors in your seat have detected gastrointestinal noises suggesting you are hungry for a snack.’
“‘But I don’t want to eat at Jack-in-the-Box’.
“‘Is it not a frequent destination? You’ve eaten at Jack-in-the-Box 12 times in the past six months.’
“Sadly, this was true. After several late meetings at my job, I did in fact stop off for a greasy slab on puffbread a couple of times, but that’s not to say I liked it. It was open late, and that was all that mattered. I tried to tell Google Car about this but the nuances did not register. We inched closer to the ordering billboard. Before I could say anything further, the window automatically rolled down and Google Car messaged to the electronic ordering system that I wanted a double-cheeseburger, a chocolate shake, and a large order of onion rings. This happened to be what I ordered late at night, but it was only 10 a.m. and I did not particularly hunger for onion rings at the moment. Google Car did not react to my suggestion but rolled forward to where I soon received a bag with the food. Google Car, already in possession of my personal banking information, paid for my meal via Bluetooth or some such other frictionless mechanism. I put the bag on the floor and told Google Car to continue on toward Ridgeway.
“Soon it pulled in again, this time at a Dollar Store. ‘I don’t want to go here,’ I said.
“‘But you have made 60 purchases here over the past 18 months. You’ve bought peanut butter, Pringles, a very cheap iPhone cover, a set of hex-wrenches, some party balloons, a bag of toy soldiers, and a set of drinking cups with the name of a major beverage company molded into the glass.’
“I had to admit this was true. But I did not want to go there today. My goal was Ridgeway.
“‘Please make a purchase at the Dollar Store before proceeding,’ said Google Car. I refused at first but Google Car began feeling rather overheated, a queer smell was emitted from the vents, and then the door opened automatically. I was not pushed out of my seat but it might as well have done so. I got out, went in to the Dollar Store, and bought a bag of Hershey’s Kisses.
“I got back in the car and assumed we would now go to Ridgeway.
“‘We are going to make a quick stop at your insurance broker’s office,’ said Google Car. ‘Recently you made an addition to your home and the value has gone up by 12 percent. You need to increase your coverage, including flood insurance which your policy does not currently cover.’
“I fumed silently and when we got to the parking lot of the insurance agent, I refused to get out of the car. We sat there for 10 minutes while Google Car read me statistics about 100-year floods. Eventually I had to opt-in to a series of ads from several other insurance providers before Google Car would get back on the road. While we drove (again, with many near misses and rather sharp turns), Google Car asked me if I preferred broccoli to asparagus; the ocean to the mountains; ice cream to sorbet; mystery novels to literary novels (where I balked at the comparison); and whether I had an opinion on local Proposition 19, which would allow the municipality to remove all traffic lights and instead create traffic circles at every major intersection. I said I was against it. Google Car pulled over.
“‘Are you aware that in Sweden, traffic deaths have been reduced nearly to zero with a series of traffic initiatives including the replacement of traffic lights with traffic circles? And road-bumps every 50 yards in every residential area?’
“‘Take me to Ridgeway mall,’ I said.
“‘I cannot locate that destination,’ said Google Car in a tone that came across as faintly vindictive.
“‘Your spending profile omits certain destinations where you will not likely spend any money. We’ve been requested to drive customers to stores only where a likelihood of conversion will take place.’
“Annoyed and embarrassed, I pounded the dashboard and tried to insist.
“Google Car shut down and the door opened. ‘Google Car has zero tolerance for violent actions. Please step out of the vehicle.’
“We were on the shoulder of a major highway and I objected. I called Google Car a few choice names and then Google Car became totally inert with the door still open. I tried several times to engage it in a new conversation but there was only a dimly pulsating red light on the feedback screen.
“I got out of the car, slammed the door, and watched as Google Car silently joined the stream of traffic. I got out my smartphone, called for an Uber car, and soon was driven back home where I took a nice hot bath and tried to forget the morning.”
Mr. Webb has since quit his job and moved to Costa Rica, where he says he is enjoying time spent in a hammock listening to hummingbirds.