The Unintended Consequences of Driverless Cars by Charlie Fish



Charlie Fish

I reckon me wife’s having an affair.

Sharon and I got together back when I was boning up to be a London cabbie. I was always hunched over a map, or going out for runs on me bike, or sitting there reciting every shopfront from Marylebone to the Old Kent Road. If it weren’t for her I’d have forgotten to eat. How she had the patience to stick with me I’ll never know.

But I passed the Knowledge in the end, and bought meself a beautiful black TX4. Filled with pride, I was, to be me own boss, to be driving such an iconic symbol of London. We used to call ourselves Cromwell’s Army, a nod to 400 years of shared history.

I paid off the cab in three years. After that Sharon and I would take a month off every year and take the kids to Benidorm. That was the life. Sure, I occasionally took a fare that didn’t make it onto me tax return, but I was fundamentally an honest cabbie. Not like those bloody Ubers.

That was some time in the mid 2010s. A seething mass of illiterate immigrants invaded our shores and our incompetent government let them all get jobs as Ubers. Suddenly the roads were flooded with them and good old black taxis were being starved out. I’d half a mind to go to Benidorm and not come back.

We thought we had it bad then, but you know what? It was good to get angry, to have a cause to fight for. We had to work longer hours, but I guess we’d had it easy till then. It felt like we had some power when we coordinated a flash demo on Twitter and brought Zone 1 to a standstill just to make the Mayor sweat. It was uplifting seeing all those taxis turn out, like a long line of worker ants.

Of course, the real hard times were ahead. When Uber announced they were phasing out human beings altogether the death knell was upon us. The protests turned into riots – inevitable with those entitled immigrant crooks joining in – and London burned. I punched an Uber driver or two in Parliament Square, but I regret that. Ultimately, we were on the same side.

Anyway, the riots made sod all difference. Uber put ten thousand driverless minicabs on London’s roads every year for five years. I went from being a highly skilled professional, commanding the respect of family and friends, to being on the breadline with the bloody immigrants. Turns out no bugger wanted a professional service, it was all about the cheaper fare. Sharon had to get a job for the first time in her life. Made me feel useless as a condom in a convent.

I kept the cab, and even started taking fares again, doing tours for Yanks and Saudis and Ruskies and Chinese. But I was still feeling sore about the whole thing. It was no surprise when the government passed the Autonomous Vehicles Act, but I refused to get one of those driverless monstrosities no matter how much Sharon begged.

The TX4 drove us everywhere right up until the day manual cars were banned. The first of January 2030 was a sad day for me, knowing she was retired for good. I moved on – became a cop like a lot of ex-cabbies because it was the only way we could still drive a real car – but I still visit the garage every day to admire her graceful curves and keep her polished. I sit in her sometimes and recite twenty-year-old shopfronts from Marylebone to the Old Kent Road.

I bought Sharon a car in the end. A Google Flo SD with alloy wheels and leather seats. I don’t use it much, but she loves it. The kids use it too when they’re back home. It’s ugly as sin as far as I’m concerned, boxy like a camper van in shoulder pads. All the cars are like that now. On the highway they look like Samsonites on an airport baggage carousel. I got in it the other day expecting to sit in the driver’s seat, but of course it faces the wrong bloody way – all the seats face inwards.

It was that trip that got me suspicious, actually. About Sharon, I mean. She’d been a bit off with me since we’d got Flo. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong, but I wanted to get back in her good books, so I planned a bit of a grand gesture for our anniversary. I was going to buy her a new cycle from the shop she works at. (Sharon was smart taking that cycle mechanic course – what with half of central London pedestrianized now and no cycle deaths for years, it’s a booming industry.)

So when Sharon got back from her early shift I made up something about taking the car to the pub for a drink. I jumped in and told Flo, “Last destination, please.” It responded with ridiculous cheer – I told it to shut up and spent twenty minutes kicking meself for having been so polite to a bloody car. When I looked up I wasn’t at Brixton Cycles at all. I was at that seedy spot round the back of Streatham Common where teenagers go to shag in those rented cars with beds in. Who’d she taken here, I wondered?

It bugged me, but I shrugged it off. At least, until last week. Last week I was on the beat, in me uniform, covering for a mate over Battersea way, when who should I see picking up an expensive looking gift from a posh boutique on Lavender Hill? Flo – our Flo – the bloody driverless car.

Our anniversary came and went. Sharon liked the cycle, I think. Frankly she wasn’t as enthusiastic as she could’ve been. And there I was, expecting me posh pressie, but no. Nothing. So who got it, I asked meself?

This morning I asked the home management system if we’d signed Flo up to Amazon Pool or something, you know, that thing where you let Amazon deliver packages with your car when you’re not using it. But the only Amazon service we’ve got is the fridge. (Can you believe Amazon’s doing fridges? Still, haven’t run out of Tennent’s Super since we got it, so can’t complain.)

On the off chance, I asked the home management system if it could give me a log of where Flo had been for the last few days. It could. Boom. There it was. Solid evidence that me wife has been up to something. Spending time with someone. Not me.

Here she comes now, back from her shift, or who knows where.

“Evening, love,” she says, looking happy as a babe with an ice cream cone.

I opt to be blunt. “Sharon. Are you having an affair?”

She doesn’t say nothing. Her expression, her hesitation, is more than enough.

“Who’s the bloke?” I bark.

“It’s not a bloke.” She looks like I might hit her.

“What? A bloody woman?”

Her eyes flick toward the driveway for a split second. I can feel the adrenalin pinching at me thoughts. Then it dawns on me. Me jaw drops and she kind of shrinks into her shoulders.

“Flo spends time with me,” she says. “Takes me places. Listens to me better than you do. And that massage mode, oh…”

I don’t know what to say. I spend the rest of the night sitting in me old TX4, caressing the steering wheel, sobbing into a four-pack of Tennent’s Super.

Food for Thought

The history of technology could be seen as the history of unintended consequences. The more disruptive the technology, the further the effects stray beyond the anticipated purpose. To what extent should we embrace this as an inevitable side effect of progress and adapt accordingly, and to what extent should – or can – we hold ourselves back to consider the potential ethical and human costs of new technology?

About the Author

Charlie Fish is a popular short story writer and screenwriter. His short stories have been published in several countries and inspired dozens of short film adaptations. Since 1996, he has edited, the longest-running short story site on the web. He was born in Mount Kisco, New York in 1980; and now lives in south London with his wife and daughters.

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