12 Jun 66%
I was looking far ahead, trying not to lose the beat-up black truck. I let it gain more distance than I should have had. I had to strain my eyes now to keep him in my sight. Suddenly I saw a dark Tesla Z veering from the opposite lane directly into my path. Time froze and became slow and oozing like honey. I was doing around 90 km/h and the incoming car must have been going at least as fast towards me. So our combined speed was 180 km/h. This thought had quickly crossed my mind (it’s weird what comes to mind in stressful situations, isn’t it?), followed by the next one: I wasn’t going to survive this.
What saved me was the fact that I was driving in the manual mode and had nothing to lose. I don’t know what the autopilot would have done, but I doubt it was capable of what I did next. I was close enough to see the eyes of the incoming driver, open wide in sheer terror. He was instinctively raising his hands to protect his head from the inevitable crash, which meant that his car was driven by an autopilot, and he had no clue about what was happening. I let the accelerator pedal go, terrified and refusing to believe that this was how it was all going to end. There was no time to break, so at the last possible moment I steered sharply to the right. Then, just as my car was going to permanently embed itself in the guardrail, I straightened the wheel somewhat to try and keep the car from spinning out of control. I kept it slightly angled to the right, enough to keep plowing the guardrail as my car was careening forward with an almost physically painful screeching sound of metal on metal friction, stressing both the car and the guardrail towards the limits they were built to withstand.
The oncoming Tesla flashed on my left, almost taking my left mirror with it. I clenched my teeth and started steering back onto the road very gently. I still wasn’t braking: my right wheels were on the unpaved shoulder, while the left ones were on the asphalt. Had I applied the brakes now, even the best differential ABS might not be able to keep the vehicle from skidding and spinning at that speed. Slowly and painfully, I was able to steer back onto the pavement. The car’s back started going sideways in a frightening oscillating pattern as I was trying to remain on the road. It was a close call, but eventually I managed to regain full control.
The whole right side of my car must be irreparably damaged. But the wheels were apparently intact, since the car steered and drove well enough. I decided that I wasn’t going to let this prevent me from pursuing what might be a mystery of the century. So I kept going. As there was no damage to the other car (well, besides a new large stain likely to have appeared on the driver’s seat), I didn’t think I had to remain at the scene of the accident. Anyway, my dashcam and autopilot cameras must have registered everything from several angles.
As I was getting closer to the more densely populated areas, new tightly packed subdivisions were soon going to appear along the route. The first traffic light was coming up far ahead. I looked at the cars stopped at the red light – and there it was: the black Dodge eRAM. As the light changed to green, it drove on. I followed, trying to gain some distance without being too apparent. The next light changed to red just before I approached, so I had to stop, while my eyes were wistfully following the truck getting further and further away. I realized it would be nearly impossible to follow it like that. What if it turns somewhere? I won’t even know. I had to get closer.
As I was nervously drumming with my fingers on the steering wheel, and trying to will the traffic light to turn green with my mental powers (which were apparently weaker than the region traffic grid programming patterns), I felt my seat suddenly launching itself forward, jamming into my back that happened to be in its way. The impact from the rear was so powerful that my car was flung across the intersection just as the fast cross traffic wave was about to sweep through. I could not do anything at all. I was stunned, and my car was careening across the intersection. It’s a miracle that it avoided any direct blows from the incoming traffic. Thankfully, drivers and autopilots in those cars had reacted promptly enough to avoid a major collision. Still, a couple of cars had clipped mine, sending it spinning into the bushes across the intersection.
Trying to come to my senses I hazily blinked. Surprisingly, it was a much softer landing than I had subconsciously anticipated. The bushes must have acted as a cushion. Like James Bond’s martini, I was shaken but apparently not stirred. Still, I could not see clearly for some reason. It took me a few seconds to realize that the windshield was covered with a web of cracks, and the car was surrounded by thin smoke which now started to creep inside. “Shit! Battery pack must have been breached!” I panicked, remembering the battery fire of my drone, and mentally magnifying it a thousand times over. Being cooked alive did not fit my plans for today. Nor, truth be told, for any other day. I frantically tried to open the door. It wouldn’t budge. A wave of panic overwhelmed me, and I redoubled my pounding at the door, coughing from the pungent smoke and screaming something unintelligible. The Universe must have been impressed, as the door finally relented. I stumbled out of the car and took several steps away.
Now that I was clear of an immediate danger of getting roasted (needless to say that the car didn’t actually catch fire) I regained the ability to think somewhat clearly again. One thought was nagging at me, and the clearer it became, the more I felt a sinking feeling, akin to a vertigo you would experience standing on the edge of an abyss and looking down. No, it was worse: I felt like the abyss was actually looking back at me, to paraphrase Nietzsche.
“What are the chances of getting involved in two nearly fatal accidents, minutes apart, just when I was following that particular car?” I asked myself. “Astronomical! No way it was a coincidence,” was the disappointing answer. I really needed someone else to talk to, this conversation with myself felt weird…
But how was this possible? It looked completely random, and that first driver was clearly not a kamikaze – he was scared to death. His autopilot had put his car in my way. And while automotive software glitches do occasionally happen, they are exceedingly rare and make the headlines every time. All the investigations and class action lawsuits have always concluded that, statistically, an autopilot is still much safer than a human driver, and by a wide margin. It is so safe that when autopilots became wide-spread even in inexpensive cars, insurance companies jumped at the opportunity to increase their profits while cutting prices at the same time. Very soon the vast majority of drivers had opted in for significantly reduced insurance rates by agreeing to drive on autopilot at least 90% of the time, unless the road conditions were unsuitable for safe autonomous operation. That means that virtually everyone now drives on autopilot, especially on major streets. So, the idiot that rear-ended me was most likely driving on autopilot too – and thus was not really an idiot. His autopilot was. Which made even less sense.
I looked across the intersection, which was rapidly becoming an epicenter of a gridlocked mess. Some people were out of their cars, cautiously approaching damaged vehicles to check if anyone needed help. Wow. Leaking liquids and spewing fumes, there was a silver Tesla semi truck. Yes, another Tesla. Its front was completely destroyed, and the trailer had jackknifed to the side, smashing a couple of other cars. No wonder the kick was so powerful. The driver was sitting next to the truck, his hands hugging his head in shock.
The conclusion was as improbable as it was inevitable: whoever it was that did not want me to follow the black truck had an entire autopilot network compromised. Or at least the Tesla one: they were dramatically overrepresented in my personal accident statistics. Even though two, normally, would not make a good sample size, in this case they seemed to do just that. Either that or I was the unluckiest person in the universe. A much more plausible explanation was that someone was tracking me, most likely via my car or my phone, and has tried to kill me twice by ramming other cars into mine. Shit! This means that at any moment another random car can just run me over! And without a steel cage around me my survival chances had just dropped dramatically. I had a hard time believing that conclusion, but needed to face the facts: ignoring this scenario could mean a rapid and quite painful death.
And there was another thing I just realized: maybe the only reason I was still alive is that I did not engage the autopilot. I was playing a detective and wanted full control of the car, so I could weave the traffic to keep the right distance. I bet that is what had saved me. If I were driving on autopilot they would not even need all these kamikaze style attacks. They could have just taken control of my car and slam it into the nearest light pole. Well, shit!
I had to act, but my overloaded, confused – and yes, shaken – brain refused to generate any helpful suggestions.