I take a step into the crosswalk at a four-way stop. It‘s morning rush hour, so I’m alert for distracted or anxious drivers. Out of the corner of my eye, I sense a white SUV moving forward, turning toward me in the crosswalk. From the car’s body language, how it accelerates toward me, I know the driver doesn’t see me. I turn to gather more information, to see if I need to jump or run. The driver is looking away, into oncoming traffic, phone pressed to their ear. I tense some muscles, but don’t jump just yet. I know they’ll look forward soon, so they can see where they’re going. I have the right of way, and there is time for them to realize their mistake.
They do turn their head and notice me, at last. Their eyes pop and they drop the phone. Most importantly, they hit the brakes and lurch to a stop. Lots of room. I walk on, voicing a critique on the driver’s attentiveness.
The whole thing takes maybe a second and a half, from beginning to end. It’s a common enough thing if you walk in the city. There are a lot more dangerous things one can do.
When the weather is nice, I walk to and from my office, about a mile and a half each way. It takes me through a complex mix of little neighborhoods that have been piling on top of each other, serving the city’s evolving needs, since they put the railroad through in 1902. The railroad is still there, just off Main Street. And there are the old Vegas casinos. But also museums and theaters, mid-century homes, and law offices built into former mid-century homes. There are wedding chapels ranging from charming to tacky. An assortment of City, State, and Federal offices. Machine shops, art galleries, and one five story tall, fire breathing mantis
Roving the street in front of the mantis is a blue toddler’s toy made life-size. It’s a small shuttle, all circles and rounded bits, trying to look as fun and non-threatening as possible. It’s covered with bubbles and domes that hide the sensors that allow it to drive itself around. It has seating for eight—none of them a driver—and standing room for more. It runs in a short circle, two blocks long, one block deep, all afternoon and evening.
I take a step into the crosswalk at a four-way stop. I know the autonomous shuttle is there. I see it every day and know its route. It knows its route too and has a turn signal on. It wants to move into the intersection where I’m crossing. I’m curious and wary. If there was a driver, they would see me being indecisive and act appropriately. Does the machine know I have the right of way?
But it hasn’t moved yet. Maybe it does see me and is waiting for me to cross. I take another step to test it. At the same moment, the shuttle moves forward, front wheels turned toward me. Does it sense me? Does it know I’m there? The body language is unclear, accelerating anemically. Is that to keep from jostling the riders or to give me time to step clear? Or is it just confused? Another fraction of a second and I’m convinced it doesn’t know I’m there and maybe I’m in danger. I search it for some intent, some hint that will tell me if I'm safe, but there’s no driver to make eye contact with, or see that they’re distracted. There may or may not be a safety driver somewhere in the loop. They might be sitting in a passenger seat driving with a tablet, or they might be miles away, watching the cameras and sensors. Or they might not be there at all, and there's no driver’s seat. No one is looking at me. There’s only a big sticker across the front window saying, “Look Ma, No Driver!”
I freeze, deciding that jumping back to the curb would the quickest way out of danger. The shuttle stutters, then comes to an awkward stop. I assume it now senses me, but even now I can’t be sure. All I have is its body language, and I haven’t figured out how to read that yet. We both sit there for a moment, still. Wondering what the other is up to. There’s no point in me stepping back and waving it forward. There’s no one to see the gesture, to understand its intent.
I decide the best way out is forward and make it to the other side of the street. The entire way across both lanes, I keep my eyes locked on the shuttle. I have no idea what it sees.
This is the third time I've encountered the shuttle at a crosswalk, and every one has been this awkward. Yet, I’m bullish on autonomous vehicles. Having people in charge of cars kills someone every twenty-five seconds of every hour of every day. 1.3 million a year. Even if we fully replace human drivers with technology, and can cut fatalities by 99%, they'll still kill 13,000 a year. A number that somehow becomes very uncomfortable when the blame shifts from human error to technological malfunction.
Transitioning from one to the other will be a momentous change, but it will be a troubled birth.
If there is a theme to Karin Tidbeck’s short story collection, Jagannath
, it’s momentous change. Her writing reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s in all the best ways, with tight prose capturing whimsy without strangling it. Instead of sinking her ideas, she plants them, lets them grow and bloom. When she tells you about an old sweater, you can smell the wool. When she tells you a handful of assorted seeds grew a sprite, you can hear them rustling in the leaves. You believe every word when her characters have a crisis of faith from meeting God, or fall in love with technology, and technology falls in love back. They encounter unseen cycles of nature, and live in symbiosis aboard curious machines. And all of the stories are about both the pain and relief that comes with change.
Her writing might be filed under urban fantasy because many of her stories take place where the modern day overlaps with Scandinavian folklore. But in the same way that Vonnegut transcended the science fiction label, Karin Tidbeck
moves well beyond the expectations of any genre.