Trigger warning: This is a work of fiction but deals with the death of a child. Some readers may find this upsetting and are advised not to continue.
Frances is comfortably ensconced, and further buried in a book, behind the dash of her shiny and new (to her) Shibitsu Ferro, only two years old and purchased with cash she saved for many years. It’s her first automated vehicle and she’s pleased as a peach. With the car chauffeuring her to her destination she can finally relax during a commute and get caught up on chores, chat with friends to keep up her social life, and get a start on clearing her backlog of books.
In its second week of service, the Ferro had already delivered on its promise of increased time to relax on her commutes. She even started to decorate the spacious interior (it only had one rear-facing couch to accommodate a driver and passenger, the rest of the space was for groceries, knick-knacks, and to accommodate the occasional piece of furniture, thus enabling her guilty purchases from antique stores).
It was decorated just so, almost like a small room in her home, and what a pleasure it was. With car accidents these days about as rare as being struck by lightning, there was no need to ensure everything was secure. Why, Frances didn’t even need to sit if she didn’t want to. The cargo area (she thought of it as a “Living” area) had plenty of room for a small bed.
So, it was a great disappointment and quite a bit of surprise that morning when Frances noticed a floor pillow and spare pair of shoes hurtling towards her face. She had been reading on the way to the usual twice-weekly in-person meeting for work and just split-second glimpsed the objects hurtling towards her over the top of her book. Within moments they had collided with, first, the book, then, her face. And the book hit her face, too, of course.
The still-life bubble of realization she found herself in gave her an unusual clarity and insight into the situation, she later remembered. She recalled thinking that, after the objects had collided with her, she had collided with something else, and her subsequent thought was about being late for work, for that stupid meeting that hardly anyone ever wanted to attend. And then her other senses kicked in and returned her sensation and consciousness to reality. A reality where everything in the back seat was suddenly all over her and her couch, she had a sore nose, and the Ferro was emitting a surprisingly pleasant, but insistent, warning tone.
Frances popped open her door and sort of stumbled but, realizing the misstep in time, corrected it into a sort of dignified hop. She looked around and found herself standing in a greenway along the road, busy traffic navigating to and fro before her in the intersection. Nearby she saw a patch of dirt with skid marks, a city bus just skidding to a halt, some other cars already paused, their drivers looking upon the scene in confusion. Continuing her survey, she saw her Ferro had crashed into a bush and light pole. The damage didn’t seem too bad, a literal fender bender, not a bad one at that, and she was feeling pleased that she could forego a visit to a body shop when she heard the scream.
Eyes wide, Frances turns to the source. A woman on the sidewalk was running towards a bundle on the ground. She motioned for help from some passersby. Frances took a half step forward in confusion and realized that too-still bundle on the pavement might have been put there by her. Her car. But, but her? She wasn’t driving. She hadn’t seen what was going on. Couldn’t have. This isn’t possible because the car’s AI would avoid hitting someone at all costs. Someone shouldn’t be dead, there should just be a bunch of damaged cars at worst.
Still in disbelief, Frances stood and watched as onlookers began to crowd. A police drone had arrived in seeming record time, perhaps three minutes since the accident (or perhaps thirty, Frances couldn’t quite keep track), and surveilled the scene, a voice emitting from a loudspeaker asking everyone gathered to clear the area. Sirens were arriving in the distance, growing louder and closer. The officers eventually arrived on the scene and rushed over to the body on the ground, the woman who first pointed him out among the last to back away.
Frances didn’t know if it was a him or a her. The thought stunned her. Not for how random a question it was, but that she realized she might be responsible and what an awful burden knowing more would be.
A few more minutes into it and an officer had asked her to stay nearby for a statement. A drone from her insurance company also arrived, summoned from the Ferro’s still active, still pleasantly- but insistently beeping computer. A voice from a speaker on the drone asked her if she was alright. Frances looked about herself and noticed nothing wrong and said so. The drone then explained it would review the scene and provide a report on their assessment and next steps when she felt ready. The drone also asked her if she felt she would benefit from speaking with a mental health algorithm. Frances shook her head in the negative. Satisfied, the drone wafted away.
She would give her statement that evening while officers extracted the petabytes of data being stored in her car’s black box. Information from sensors scattered all over her car, along with imagery from cameras and three-dimensional data from the Lidar, all nestled into a bundle waiting to recreate a scene so police, insurance, Shibitsu itself, could determine what had happened. Car accidents had been incredibly rare for many years now, after all – perhaps they could find some way to prevent this from happening again.
But their efforts certainly didn’t help Frances now. The police eventually let her go and she walked back to her car. Beyond the slight dent it was fine. An officer surprised her when he spoke behind her and told her she was good to go with it any time. She nodded and got in with trepidation. She used the car’s manual controls to back it up a bit, then got out and checked the front of the vehicle.
Not a lot, but it was there, on the hood, and unmistakable. It had turned brown. She was horrified. The rest of the ride home was done by manually driving the car while in a light stupor, conscious of the fact that by doing so she was the most dangerous thing on the road but unable to bring herself to trust in the Ferro again.
A week later Frances was getting back to herself. Her routine had been disrupted, sleep had been hard to come by, but her memories and frustrations had finally seen fit to desert her. She was grateful for it. Except, there was one reminder of the night of the accident she couldn’t get her mind around. The car, the Ferro, itself. That dent. The blood she had cleaned off with a hose, tearful at the act but also mindful to steer clear lest she get any on her. She’d felt shallow and ashamed at the thought but also accepted it as truth and reconciled it to herself thus.
The dent. The dent could be fixed. But…the…the damage would always be there. The stigma, if a car can be said to have such a thing.
Within a couple days of the accident, the news had been abuzz with information Frances had learned directly from the police department hours earlier. They had used diagnostic tools to recreate the scene of her crash and what had been happening for a few minutes before. The most relevant parts were the final eight seconds, which showed traffic approaching an intersection along with all the pedestrians nearby. It highlighted her Ferro, moving in sync with other vehicles, all of them at the same publicly mandated speed limit (a concept that, if the safety success story of automated vehicles continued for a while longer, would cease to exist) and a pedestrian entering the street. He hadn’t been paying attention. Her Ferro was heading for him. And ordinarily it, and the cars behind it and nearby, would all react to the presence of…the child. They would slow down and stop. They hadn’t in this case — the Ferro hadn’t — because of a third factor, one that was far more of a priority to the designed-by-committee moral firmware embedded in each vehicle.
A nearby bus, full of passengers, had malfunctioned and its driver was having difficulty keeping it set on manual drive. And so, in his moment of distraction, the bus had sped up, jumped a curb into the street, and headed for the Ferro. The display showed the bus was quite a way off from the Ferro when it had kicked off, but it had accelerated so quickly that its mass at impact would have been considerable. The algorithm navigating the car reviewed the information from all nearby vehicles, including the bus, and took stock of the number of all nearby passengers, what insight into their health conditions that was relevant and it was permitted to know (information provided confidentially thanks to an app manually and voluntarily installed by each owner), and determined its best course of action.
To minimize the cost in lives, it would have to speed up.
After speeding up, it would attempt to swerve (in the recreation at this point the car could be seen speeding up while others alongside peeled off automatically, to give the Ferro space to avoid the pedestrian, even though all their calculations knew the maneuver wouldn’t be enough.
The algorithm was programmed by principled engineers. The cars would try not to hit someone, even though they knew their efforts would be futile. It was a frank admission that the system wasn’t perfect, couldn’t be perfect, and that if all else failed everyone involved would be in the hands of god.
The Ferro sped up. It sped up, cars nearby swerved, the Ferro swerved, it hit the child. It was flung many meters away. He was flung. And.
Frances realized she was remembering everything again and felt the emptiness, the vacuum of emotion from her past week creeping back on her. She shook her head and saw the Ferro in her driveway again.
She’d saved up for years. Through lean times and forgoing nice things when times were plum. She’d always wanted a car. She loved the freedom, the thrill of potential, of being able to go somewhere and do something any time. It was her ticket to the world.
Except now, when she got in it…it felt like a cage.
She couldn’t stop her memories from coming back to her, not while her guilt was parked in the driveway. So now, a week later, Frances listed the Ferro for sale. The ad read:
FOR SALE: SMART CAR, LIGHTLY DAMAGED
It listed a fair price, flattering photos of the car, and the most flattering photo she could get of the dent (an impossible task). She provided a link to the car’s page on the Shibitsu records Blockchain for maintenance history and diagnostics from the computer. The listing showed her profile picture and her trustworthiness as a seller. She had a top-notch ranking thanks to her hobby of finding, restoring, and reselling antique furniture.
Over the next few days the listing would get a few visitors who bounced immediately. The app analysis showed that they were most likely reacting negatively to the price. She let it sit a few weeks with similar success before she lowered it. This continued for a few weeks until she reached an amount the market agreed it could bear (everyone’s personal algorithm making recommendations for their possible expenditures in their best interests) and she started to see a critical mass of visitors.
And their change in behavior.
The algorithm was no longer finding people bouncing off the price. It was, instead, the photo of the damage. Frances had the algorithm show her what the average visitor was doing that lead them to the bumper. It showed her a path where they looked at the car’s default image (of it’s undamaged angle, of course), then their attention hovered over the description for mere seconds, likely scanning for keywords that would only be of particular interest if noticed, and skipped right on through to the rest of the photos.
And they would inevitably zoom in on the bump first.
She understood what was going on, that this was people’s morbid fascination, but she didn’t really appreciate it yet. Not until days later when she’d asked her app’s algorithm to give her more insight into what was going on. It showed her a list of sites referring traffic and her heart caught in her throat.
One of the sites was Clangalanggang.com, a site notorious for its toxicity, whose users reveled in the macabre, where pessimistic people ruled. She tapped the link and her phone changed to show a screenshot of the page her little car sale was listed on and a title in bold fonts:
SEE THE FIRST CAR TO KILL A CHILD IN ACTION
On this site that linked to her sale was the diagnostic data from her Ferro. People could download it and recreate the accident live on their phones, hear what the cars heard, saw what they saw. Her horror grew as she watched a video showing the interior of the car, four minutes of her reading, sipping her morning tea (just finishing it before the accident, some people had mentioned, as though the revelation was divine), and then slowing for a frame-by-frame analysis did showing the moment of impact of all her stuff (with special effects sounded added in for humor). The interior cameras were supposed to be a social feature so she could relive happy car-moments, they were a dumb upgrade for the car but since she was the second owner, she hadn’t had a choice in their installation.
No one wanted to buy her car. Her car had killed someone. And now, in this astounding breach of privacy, everyone would know who was behind the wheel. Frances and her Ferro had become a bizarre object of fixation by an internet subculture. The thought made her sick to her stomach.
Within minutes of her discovery she lowered the asking price to a pittance. She couldn’t take it anymore — it had to go.
A few days later she sold the Ferro to a young woman who had just gotten her license. She was aware of the car’s history but was so desperate for one (she’d always dreamed of it, she said, dreamed of the freedom it could bring) she was willing to host its ghosts. Frances nodded, took her money, handed her the keys.
Frances watched the young woman drive off in what had been her hopes and dreams. Silly, she thought, dreams should only ever live in you, the one thing you would have your whole life, and not in transient things that stroked your vanity. The thought was of little comfort, but she would sleep a bit better that night.