Just some stuff I've had floating around in my head and nobody left to tell it to without getting that look.
What if an auto pilot could be designed for cars that didn't require any modification to the roadways at all?

"Lane Lock"
or
"Kathleen"

Reese was sweating even in the forced air suit. The Palace of Edgecliff module was a lot harder than he had anticipated. Twice as they neared completion they'd been hit with problems: First a sand pocket caused a section of the wall to sink. The solution was simple, but rebuilding on top of the sunken portion cost his team most of the lead time they had so steadily accumulated. Several supply barges had further distracted them and the attack was nearly successful when it finally arrived-a scant five minutes before wash-up. But five minutes was all it had taken. Reese had never been so convinced of his impending doom, when suddenly the tide had turned! Reinforcements from the dock poured in in response to their call for dispatch jitney drivers. They must have remembered the looks on the faces of their attackers a couple of weeks ago when Reese's Priority sort brigade had stood up behind their huddled survivors and dared the truckers to confront that line of defense!

"Man what a day!" he said to his second, Mike Moriority, as they headed for the lockers. "We must have moved ten tons today."
"More like twenty," was the reply.
They walked down the outway pass corridor, it's walls that of a medieval castle until about the halfway point when the visors lost their signal and cleared to show drab yellow cinderblock construction with tiny reflective chips for the texture mapper sparkling here and there.
"What's up for tomorrow?" said Mike as they entered the locker room.
"I think it's the mining planet again."
"I hope they got it fixed, I lost five Mailhandlers last time to that Paradise Ship virus. When I finally found them at the end of the north dock lying on some pallets they didn't even want to go home!"
"Sounds like the start of a highly productive concept-if you can convert it to work!" They both laughed.

His powersuit cleaning in his locker, Reese felt the returned pull of gravity strongly since he was tired even with the suit. His approach to the lot door had been triangulated using his cell phone location and his car was waiting at the curb, no one visible behind the smoky glass. Sliding into the drivers seat he stretched in the way men have stretched the moment they sat in their cars after a hard day since...well, since car seats became comfortable enough to stretch in. That would have been way before the Big Three had become the Big One and then had made that one critical mistake-if you could call it that. They had commoditized the automaking process to the point that a little lean on congress was all it took to approve virtual crash testing. They did have the data, tons of it-even when you weighed it in electrons. They could tell you to within a couple of grams the change in impact transmitted to an occupant when somebody ordered the optional heavy duty desert proof radiator package for their two seater commuter car instead of the stock system, and then smacked the car into pretty much anything - all from computer modeling.

But then the law of unintended consequences smacked them upside the head. When Benevolent Guardian Nader (or Benny G, as he would insist you call him - if you ever got close enough to call him) got done with them they had to supply any start-up automaker, not only with the parts at wholesale, but with the crash/performance data for any combination of those parts. Of course their computer would get to decide what was "A Workable and Safe Automobile," and, of course,  Autocorp still made money hand over fist. Actually, they soon realized that they made less by building the cars themselves, but they knew better than to say so. Thousands of two bit motor companies sprang up overnight. It seemed that anybody with a set of Snap-Tight wrenches and a fiber downlink thought he was the next Henry Ford. Parts warehouses soon became experts at technical questions and then, with some additional software and tooling, began to do sub-assemblies using the same one arm order filling bots. You could practically build a fully customized car in your underwear. Reese and the other members of the slash-dot community had a long head start at that sort of thing.

Since the auto industry was now a single-source system, compatibility was automatically configured for whatever part combination you selected. Possible connections and capabilities of the recombinant parts were simply listed by the computer. A knowledge of available hardware and its design parameters made it possible to request components fitted with connections for uses undreamed of. Reese had always been an early adopter, preferring to be the guy that would dream up stuff for his more geeky friends to build. Programming custom interfaces to the Autocorp data base was a given, and allowed automated testing of virtually any possible configuration of electronic hardware that would fit in a car. It was a toy he and his friends played with constantly. His ride was actually quite conservative by their standards.

The voice that welcomed him was Kathleen, a hybrid of the traits of several stock voices with custom nuances added in and tweaked until Reese unconsciously relaxed at her greeting: "Home, James?" she asked, in a slightly mocking tone. This had been his line so often that she'd begun to rib him for it.
"Yes dear." he said, meaning it slightly more than he knew he should. The door shut and he was cradled in a restraint web that was barely noticeable. The car slipped silently away as Reese ran through a short systems check. Kathleen responded as if he were the captain of this ship. It was a nice effect, the sharp responses of "Power check, aye! Operating on sixty-four percent battery power declining at seventeen-percent per minute. Engine at full output in one-two-seven-point-oh-five-eight-eight seconds nominal, Sir!" -in that voice. If Reese was talking to her with a window open men would stop and look to see the owner of that voice. It was interesting, on several levels.

The power supply of the car was straightforward: A small steam enhanced Star Rotor engine powered a third generation low-resistance alternator. At cruising speed this supplied full power to the hub motors, ran the electronics, and recharged the battery. This was a lithium polymer design using nano encapsulation technology that increased its interactive area exponentially. Intended to supply start-up power and supplement output for rapid acceleration and possible emergency use, the car could run on it alone for about thirty minutes. It could provide combinations of maximum acceleration and top speed cruise for maybe ten. Reese liked speed-but economically. K. C. as he called her, or Kathy, or Katie, or pretty much anything he liked- especially Kathleen, who was absolutely regal in her ability to adapt, had mapped the lot to within a few millimeters give or take and knew the dimensions, tags, and times of all the regular cars there. She really didn't have that much to do and needed something to occupy all those extra processor cycles for the eight hours she waited for Reese each day. Making intelligent conversation with him caused no perceptible loss in her capability and definitely enhanced his, knowing his interests as she did and having so much time to comb through the net. If asked she could have given the schedules of the owners of many of the cars and even their favored parking spots. She plotted these for arrival times ranging from "why is he here so early early and Oh! look who he's parked next to!" To "If he had any sick leave left he wouldn't be here at all-late." She used decaying heat signatures as a pathologist would if the arrival was not observed directly, and she compared notes with the few other environment aware autos there. It was useful to keep up with such things, and a girl just never knew what might come in handy.  

She monitored the cars of other Postal Workers leaving at the same time, checking their heat signatures to determine their state of warm-up, who had yet to leave-and about when they would. She noticed the tell-tale shift of the body by a degree or two of a car they were passing as someone put it into reverse out of routine (They must be in a rush today she mused, the idle is still a bit high...) and she punched it-virtually leaping ahead ten feet as the four hub motors surged to maximum capacity before traction loss detection limiting and just as suddenly creating a wave of power in regenerative braking mode as the battery soaked up a significant amount of what it had just pumped out. She noted that Reese accepted the slam into the form fitting seat back and let the web softly catch him in turn without really even registering a flicker of alarm. Perhaps he'd noticed the car himself, or more likely he just was tired and didn't think about it.

"Full auto?" asked K.C., turning toward the freeway-in full auto mode. She was painfully aware that Reese had not touched her controls once since he'd entered the car.
"Oh, yeah. Full auto. I guess I forgot. Sorry." It was not exactly legal to drive this way, but since she had been programmed to learn his habits and follow them by default, it was pretty much routine. If they passed a cop she would let him know and he could pretend to drive, but he was getting so careless she didn't connect the steering circuit unless she felt she could trust him, and then she still verified his attention and wouldn't let him do anything stupid or dangerous. She would have to admit she liked Reese-in spite of her good programming.
"That's O.K. she said. Do you want the lights?" She could do a pretty nifty 3D Heads Up display.
"Sure, thanks."
"It's no problem." And then , "Full graphic display enabled, AYE!"
Reese smiled. Even though he'd taught her that it was still cute. The road ahead lit up with multi-colored Neon trails: the highway, their path, the position and speed of traffic, and faint outlines of guard rails, bridge posts, light poles, etc. This was not just decoration, the mapped features and static objects were recorded in her database along with coordinates, road width, lane width, surface friction coefficient, elevation, angle...stuff like that. She was always checking this data, swapping with slash-dotters she came across, and with any "chirpers". These were data checkers. Small transceivers located in precisely targeted areas that verified where you were with where you thought you were based on your own sensor inputs. Kathleen created a 3D construct of the roads she travelled and saved and swapped them. Sometimes a detailed one was available for an untraveled road, but you still had to verify it with Dotters you met on the road and your own good sensor inputs. (Why anyone would want to put out a false highway data map was beyond her ability to comprehend. HUMANS!)

Anyway, Reese was nice, and seemed fairly intelligent, though easily pleased and occupied with baubles like pretty lights. If there were a fair number Dotters ahead of her, she could cruise at one-twenty or so using their data for the road ahead, barring absolute blockages by retros. She was part of a mesh network system pulsed at about ten times the legal output power. The signals were so short they didn't even show up unless you were scanning for them. Traffic patterns, speed traps, road conditions were chirped all over. A web of information floating over the highway system. If she detected that one of her hub motors speed varied for an instant from the others with normal data factored in, it went out as a slick spot. A warning appeared on everyone's H/U at that spot, but their cars were ready for it long before then. Everything was shared like that: routine weather reports, icing, high water, any traction degradation, radar, construction. etc. Kathleen frugally planned for acceleration on down hills and allowed a percentage of speed drop-off on up hills at the priority Reese had programmed. He could over-ride all this by a heavy foot on the accelerator, but she had noticed that he did this inappropriately at times, not even aware of the traffic and road data. So, like the steering, the effect of his foot on the accelerator was at times taken as a suggestion. At first she tried to spare his feelings by making it sound like it was not possible because of a situation: "Sorry, we are too close to the next exit for that degree of acceleration." or even tell a white lie: "Chirper reports traffic over the next hill." Now she had reduced her response to a simple "Uh-Uh! " when it was not reasonable to let him have speed control.

Just over half the way home she could stand his silence no more: "What's the matter?" Showing genuine concern.
"Oh, I'm just pondering. There's a short story contest, Science fiction. I'd like to enter, but don't know what to write."
"Well," she said, her relief evident.  "I've always heard that you should write about something you know...." Her mind was at a possible solution almost before she had started, "You...could write something fanciful...about me...for instance." She said, with just a trace of something new in that voice.

Copyright 2011 Daniel J. Gooch All rights reserved