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Time off travellers

The road trip of the future could be a break from the grinding reality of today’s car journeys. A speculative journey by David Peach

David Peach
21 April 2023
Feeling a bit nostalgic, like his parents before him Jordan took the wheel and guided the vehicle off the drive and onto the smaller roads that would lead them to the motorway (Image: Manchester 2022 by David Peach)

 

A low hum roused Jordan from sleep in the early hours. He realised, without giving it too much thought, it was the Mark 2 vehicles leaving the drive. When returning for redeployment, the vehicles were self-guided the short distance to the nearest available hub where they would be inspected and valeted. Their departure was followed shortly after by a crunch on the gravel that signalled the bigger tyres of the Mark 4 positioning themselves outside the house.

Jordan had set the alarm for 6am. But he needn’t have bothered, as the kids gave an excited squeal from the other room knowing the arrival of a new vehicle meant the start of their holidays.

Of more immediate interest to Jordan was the sound of the coffee maker switching on, and the brightening glow from the kitchen lights cast their warmth up the stairs. It was a mental tick in the box for him to know he’d set the “Holiday Wake Up” routine correctly in his calendar, giving him hope the rest of the day would run smoothly.

As he got up to shower, Jordan left his partner Lexi to sleep on. She’d had a long day of work yesterday finishing calls with her nationwide remote team. All against the backdrop of the children getting in from school and trying to contain their excitement at the upcoming trip.

The family slowly gathered in the kitchen as natural light from the rising sun, bathed the floor. There was excited chatter among them but little time pressure to get on the road. They’d chosen a departure time based on an optimal journey plan provided as part of their vehicle subscription.

Looking at the form of the new season Mark 4 glinting in the sun, Jordan reflected on how the family had found some unexpected benefits in switching to autonomous vehicles.

Being able to plan their journey with a degree of certainty and reliability was a significant bonus. Although delays still occurred, the AV service’s blurb promised the best journey route was now based on a full statistical analysis of historic data. It included factoring in the odds of a delay caused by external factors – weather, the (very rare) accident, or control system failures. Okay, it was still possible to use a non-autonomous car but going old school came with restrictions on journey times and routes.

Jordan pondered how things had been for his parents’ generation. They’d typically locked up significant money in a car that had to serve a whole host of needs, broke- down intermittently and which relied solely on the skill of the driver to get from A to B.

Recalling the rows and tears on the road trips of childhood, in his parents’ case maybe ‘skill’ was not quite the right word. It seemed like another world. He even recalled his father telling him about his own childhood when some cars had bench seats in the front, no seat belts and parents and children would all squash on the one seat!

Mentally complementing the coffee maker’s morning brew selection (which was of course chosen by an AI routine in the device), Jordan felt content and warmed to his motoring decisions. After all, the Mark 4 was an all-round good thing, good at finding its way and good for the planet. Ever increasing car adoption in his parent’s era had led to unsustainable levels of congestion. The “freedom of the open road” was not that compelling when the road was crammed with other free souls.

Although electric vehicle adoption had eased emissions, improving air quality, concerns about precious metals extraction had impaired adoption. The good news, courtesy of the Tech Channel, was that vastly improved materials recovery, new technological advances in batteries, improved range and fully renewable energy production had meant ultimately that electric was the obvious choice for the bulk of transport types.

When Jordan and Lexi decided to take this break to the coast it set off a simple chain of events that allowed them to adapt their daily transport needs for their holiday. For a single monthly subscription they had opted for the use of two household vehicles whenever they needed them. For the most part the Mark 2 range was adequate, offering a decent level of comfort and enough space for most of the daily needs for Jordan and Lexi.

When his and her holiday dates were synched by Life Works in the family calendar, Lexi had logged onto the Journeaze online booking platform they subscribed to. She selected the dates for their holiday and times for vehicle drop off and pick up. She’d selected the Mark 4 vehicle as it was roomier for the family and had more luggage space with a higher comfort specification. In the process she also relinquished both of their Mark 2 vehicles as they would get a rebate for one of the vehicles while they were away.

As part of Lexi’s booking she bought the VolumeMaster package for the Mark 4. VolumeMaster was pure genius as it delivered, in advance of their holiday, a series of soft packing cubes perfectly optimised for the layout of the selected vehicle. It meant packing could be done ahead of time and there were less last-minute stresses about whether everything would fit in the car! As long as, of course, that they could agree among them who got the most cubes!

While the couple packed the cubes into the Mark 4, the children gathered up the inevitable last bits from their rooms. Some things didn’t change and there was always an extra soft toy or action hero that needed to be wedged into a door compartment!

The family settled down as the Mark 4 pulled off the drive a just few minutes after their planned time and the route planner updated with their new arrival time. By default, assisted departure activated on any new journey. Statistically more accidents occurred when vehicles joined traffic so this innovation alone had significantly improved road safety. With a gentle polite voice Journeaze updated them on their journey timings. They were pleased to see their ETA hadn’t changed much despite the later departure.

Feeling a bit nostalgic, like his parents before him Jordan took the wheel and guided the vehicle off the drive and onto the smaller roads that would lead them to the motorway. Having this element of manual control leant flexibility for those inevitable last minute “can we just stop to (get some sweets, get a bottle of water etc)” choices. But today there were no last minute request, the roads were still quiet and Jordan followed the voice instructions to take the best route to the motorway.

For his own peace of mind as much as anything else Jordan spoke to the Mark 4’s onboard computer: “Intellicar – full system check please”.

“Good morning,” responded the computer, again in polite, reassuring tones.

“Battery charge optimal, all mechanical items optimal, journey time as scheduled. Have an enjoyable journey.”

Jordan felt his shoulders relax a little more having the positive feedback.

“Thank you,” Jordan said. Did the cabin’s interior lights just glow a little more after this appreciative comment, he wondered?

They saw the motorway bridge and access approaching. There had been few signs as they really only served a purpose now for reassurance. But as they approached within 200 metres of the ramp onto the motorway Intellicar announced: “Motorway approaching, preparing to take full control.”

Jordan felt the steering go light under his grasp as the computer took over control of the vehicle.

The development and adoption of autonomous vehicles had seen a number of scenarios being trialled. What ultimately prevailed was a co-control approach where drivers would still take control for most local journeys while full autonomy was granted to the onboard computer for motorways and main highways.

As the Mark 4 approached the top of the access ramp to the motorway they felt the onboard computer gently modulating approach speed to the other traffic.

They knew that simultaneously their own vehicle and the vehicles on the inside lane were communicating to leave enough space for Jordan and Lexi’s vehicle to join safely.

When first experienced it was an uncomfortable sensation, but it was not unlike an aircraft coming into land and optimising speed and approach for safety.

Once their vehicle had joined the existing traffic Jordan settled into his seat and picked up his phone to check for messages. Lexi and he then chatted about their week coming up and used the large display screen to plan some places they wanted to visit and things to do over the course of their holiday. They encouraged the children to join in and  look at the pictures of their destination and it was obvious from the chatter and giggling they were all looking forward to things they would see and do.

All of the vehicles on the motorway were travelling at the same speed, around 80kph. One of the biggest changes that autonomous vehicles brought was optimising road capacity. Jordan asked the Mark 4 computer for some detail and the cabin display informed him that all around vehicles were travelling at a standard separation of 10 metres and at the same speed. This indicated a high traffic density as when traffic density dropped the separation distance increased – there were still advantages to finding less congested routes or travelling at less busy times.

He tapped for a Tech Channel explainer, the vehicles communicated constantly to manage the travel parameters which allowed maximum capacity on existing roads while significantly improving safety and creating reliable journey times. It had taken some time for car manufacturers – who now tended to style themselves as mobility experience providers – to adopt a common communication protocol, but when they did it had been revolutionary.

Jordan smiled, musing to himself “So, I am swapping checking data at work with facts about how we travel.” He switched off the Tech Channel feed.

Jordan then turned to Lexi asking: “Did you set your voicemail?”

He knew that although her diary could have set her integrated voicemail automatically, she usually over-ruled it. He spotted the guilty look in her eye as she struggled to switch off from her work. But she knew she needed the break too and picked up her phone to change the settings.

Voicemail had evolved significantly, and they both knew that any incoming calls would at first be picked up by an AI powered voice bot, Life Works, which would provide an informed answer to any inbound calls. The Life Works voice bot had full access to the company systems via the relationship management platform and so could respond to most questions based on a customer’s recent history and interactions. But “letting go” was still a human trait that saw a constantly shifting dynamic of human interaction versus AI powered communication.

As the Mark 4 approached the gates of their holiday destination, Jordan looked at Lexi who was gazing wistfully at the view and peered at the children engrossed in their toys. Catching his reflection in the instrument screen, he reflected on how relaxed they already felt. The gates swung open having been alerted to their vehicle’s arrival.

As the family settled down that evening watching the sun go down with a glass of wine in hand, they listened as the Mark 4 eased itself off the drive, the electric motor purring as it moved onto its next allocation. It would be swopped during the evening for another Mark 2 until it was time to return home. But that was two weeks away, two weeks of adventures and memory making that any amount of digital technology couldn’t enhance.

Author's Note

We live in a world facing evolution and its share of threats. Technological advance and change as always is an opportunity and a threat. Transport, AI and environmental issues are all evolving side by side. My view is that integrated public transport will play a bigger role in future. But we’ve had almost 140 years of cars and the autonomy they bring and I don’t think we will relinquish that. This is my perception of how personal transport might evolve and the impact it might have on part of our work and lifestyles.

PS: This wasn’t written by AI!

©David Peach, 2023

Transpennine Route Upgrade (TRU) Programme Administrator - Rail North Partnership
Transport for the North
Leeds
£28,990.00 - £34,588.00 Per Annum
Automatic Traffic Counting Engineer
Department for Transport
Birmingham, Leeds, London
National minimum £40,808, London minimum £44,811
Automatic Traffic Counting Engineer
Department for Transport
Birmingham, Leeds, London
National minimum £40,808, London minimum £44,811
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