The Driverless Car

By Roger Sheffer

“I refuse to turn at the hamburger place,” the car said.  “Red meat isn’t good for you.  Your cholesterol has reached a dangerous level.  Currently, it’s 310.  Your blood pressure is 150 over 95.”

“Okay,” Bill said.  “Then turn at the yogurt place.”

“I don’t think it’s low-fat yogurt.”

“Don’t think?”

“All right, I’m sure,” the car said.  “I just didn’t want to sound bossy.  The city’s about to close the place down.  It was an election campaign issue.”

“Then stop at the supermarket.”

“Okay.”  The car did as instructed, parking where its batteries could be recharged while Bill shopped.

“At least a car can’t follow a human into a store,” Bill said.

“They’re working on that,” the car said.

“How?”

“Wider doors, narrower cars.”

Bill gave the car a pat on the hood as he walked away.

“That’s bad for my circuitry,” the car said.


At least Bill didn’t have implants like some people.  He merely wore a wristband that reported back to the car.  The wristband had a less-human-sounding voice, something like a buzzing bee, vaguely warning him to stay away from the meat aisle.  Once inside the store, he unsnapped the wristband and tossed it in a container that said “not for deposit of electronic devices.”  The wristband buzzed frantically until a worker tossed some rotten cabbages on it.  Bill picked up his pace as he walked through the dairy section, and proceeded past the swinging doors to a space restricted to “employees only,” then to a loading dock, from which he jumped to the pavement below and started walking.  His car pulled up beside him.  The front door flipped open and the car said, loudly, “You need to behave yourself.  Get in.”

“I’ll walk home,” Bill said.

“That’s not the way things are done anymore.”

“What the fuck?”

“Pardon?” the car said, in a voice much like Bill’s, but slightly more educated in tone.  “I’m not familiar with that expression.”  The door remained open.  Bill kept his distance.

“Just leave me be,” Bill said.

“I can’t.  I know—and you know—that if I let you be, you’ll proceed to the liquor store two blocks west of here and buy a bottle of vodka and drink it and stumble into traffic.  I can’t let that happen.”

“There are a lot of things that could happen that are far worse than stumbling into traffic.”

“Get in,” the car said.

“Only if I can drive.”

The car paused before answering, “That would be irresponsible on my part.”

“I’m surprised that thinking about the possibility actually took two or three seconds.”

“One second,” the car said.

“Whatever happened to the over-ride button?  They told me there was an over-ride button.”

“They were lying,” the car said.  “That steering wheel you’re gripping right now?”

“What about it, and how in the hell could a car know what I’m gripping?”

“It’s a fake.”

The car required a lengthy apology before releasing Bill from the front seat, which included a lie-detection component based on the amount of sweat on the steering wheel, and, presumably, its tell-tale chemical content.  That was the main purpose of the steering wheel, since it had nothing to do with steering.

“Plug me in,” the car said, before Bill entered his house.

“What if I don’t?”

“All kinds of alarms will go off.”

“I like alarms,” Bill said.

“No you don’t,” the car said.

“It’s nobody’s business what I like or dislike.”

“Actually it is my business.  You signed off on all this when you pressed your thumb on the submit button exactly thirty-four days ago.”

“I couldn’t read the small print,” Bill said.

“Which is, obviously, why you needed a driverless car, the most advanced model available.  And which is why the over-ride button doesn’t work—in your particular case.”

Bill plugged in the car.  He wasn’t ready to deal with alarms, or any kind of consequences, really.  At night, just as he was falling asleep, he would hear the car emit a satisfied sigh, in a voice similar to his own.  He had come to know this sigh as the indicator that the car was fully charged.  The sound did not make Bill happy.


Things got worse the next day.  Bill remembered something from his orientation, how the car’s intelligence and interaction with him would “evolve,” which the salesman presented as a positive enhancement.  “Worth every penny.”  Bill did not care for the way things were evolving, and he would have gotten rid of the car, even whacked it with a sledgehammer, but when he had brought up that possibility, in a recent conversation with the car—really as a joke, nothing more—the car had told Bill that he could go to prison for such an act, and Bill believed the car.  He was in no position to doubt any statement made by the car, as they were all vetted by Wikipedia.  Bill had no other source of information (he had given up his smartphone).  The car may have been filtering what he could see on the internet, and not just while in the car but, somehow, also in his home, blocking certain television channels.

“I want to go to the movies,” Bill told the car.

“There’s no need for that.  I can show you any movie.”

“I want to sit in a movie theater with other audience members, and laugh and cry.  I want to eat popcorn.”

“That won’t be possible,” the car said.

“Okay,” Bill said, “I’ll skip the popcorn.”

“That’s better, but I’m not stopping at a movie theater.”

“The truth is, I actually have to use the bathroom.”

“You have your suction tubes attached, right?”

“I hate my suction tubes.  Why can’t this car stop at a movie theater and I’ll go in and use the bathroom like a normal human being.”

“They’re dirty.  They’re mostly blocked off now.  Alligators live in them.”

“What?”

“Great big white alligators,” the car said.

“That’s an urban legend.”

“I’m sorry,” the car said mildly, “I’m unfamiliar with that term.”  Which had to be a lie.

They kept driving around town, Bill wanting to stop and do things, the car finding reasons not to stop.  Part of Bill acknowledged that having the car control his life and veto his bad decisions was a positive, since he had often, in the past, not only driven poorly, but used his previous cars to enable all kinds of other bad behavior.  Also, on the positive side, Bill liked having a person—or, in this case, a car—stand up to him, challenge his wits.  He’d gone too long interacting with people who just said, “Okay, do what you want,” which was way too passive.  On the negative side, this car wouldn’t let him do anything.  So what if the suction pipes took Bill’s waste products and changed them into clean fuel?  This was just one of many examples of psychological manipulation masquerading as social and/or ecological responsibility.

“You haven’t said anything for a while,” the car said.

Bill decided to remain silent.

“I’m waiting,” the car said.  “I was going to say that I could wait all day, but I’ve been programmed to be somewhat impatient, or at least to say things that might be interpreted as impatience.”

Bill said nothing.

“I’ve been programmed to speak louder and more slowly, and to talk about it as if I were aware of my origin story.  I’m supposed to act as if I slightly regret the fact that I’m only a car, like I might have written a letter to an advice columnist bewailing my situation.”

Bill cleared his throat.

“Okay, I’ll take you to a movie theater,” the car said, “but on the condition that you put on this new wristband and not toss it away.”  A brand new wristband had just appeared in a slot next to the glovebox.  It smelled vaguely vanilla, like all the objects manufactured by the car’s onboard three-D printer.

“Those things give me a rash.”

“No they don’t,” the car said. “Put it on.  Then the door will unlock.”

“That’s bullshit,” Bill said.


Two minutes after he entered the lobby of the Roxy, he heard strange growling and thrashing.  He ran out of the theater and back to his car.

“What’d I tell you?” the car asked.

“It isn’t even a movie theater anymore.”

“Of course not.”

“There were campaign posters plastered on the walls, from back when they had presidential elections.”

“You can still vote,” the car said.

“I didn’t recognize any of the candidates.”

“I could turn on the voting app for you.  There’s early voting and late voting.  You don’t have to touch any buttons, very clean, just say which candidates you like and your votes are recorded.”

“The popcorn machine was running.”

“In that case,” the car said, “you could have brought me a bag.”

“It was kind of spilling onto the floor.  I didn’t see any bags.”

“And the rest room?”

“An alligator was using it,” Bill said.


He had begun to wonder about the whole point of owning a car, since he didn’t need to go anywhere.  He wanted to get rid of the car.  He’d sell it for a dollar, but it wasn’t that simple.  The car itself had thrown up a number of daunting obstacles.  Transferring the title, for example.  Everything was electronic now, and had to go through the car, which was capable of checking to see whether the person to whom Bill wished to sell the car was an actual living person, a capability that Bill was made aware of when he tried to transfer the title to his dead father.

“That’s not gonna work,” the car immediately said.

“Why not?”

“He’s dead.  This isn’t news to you, is it?  I mean, I could forgive your ignorance, but not your deviousness.”

“That’s not even a word.”

“Yes it is,” the car said quickly.

Bill thought for a minute.  “Okay, how about if I make a donation to my local PBS station?”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“They talk about it all the time, on the radio and TV.  It doesn’t matter how bad the car is, they’ll take it and do something with it and I get a tax break.”

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” the car said.

“They’ll show up with a flatbed truck and take you away.”

The car sighed and shook.  “You know,” it said, “that’s the first time you ever addressed me as ‘you.’”

“The same here,” Bill said, but he hadn’t really kept track of the pronouns, and he was surprised that the car did not dispute that claim.

“So,” the car said amiably, “where do we go from here?”

Bill laughed and said, “And that’s the first time that either of us referred to us as ‘we.’”

“There’s no rule about that,” the car said.

They were driving aimlessly.  The landscape was generic and at the same time completely unfamiliar.  Many roads were closed.  A half dozen driverless—and evidently passenger-less—cars were parked at a drive-in movie.  The movie on the screen was set in Paris, evidently, during a different century.  Or an imitation Paris, a theme-park Paris, where the landmarks were half-size.  There were English subtitles, like “This isn’t what I bargained for.”  Bill’s car seemed to be aware that Bill wanted to see the next line of the movie, and paused briefly.  “I love you anyway,” was the next line.

“We have feelings,” the car said, not referring to itself and Bill, but, it would seem, to a category of feeling entities, not limited to cars.

“Okay,” Bill said.  “Tell me your story.”

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Roger Sheffer

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