The Sedric (Self-Driving Car) from Volkswagen: Such autonomous cars could soon shape the mobility of the future.
The Sedric (Self-Driving Car) from Volkswagen: Such autonomous cars could soon shape the mobility of the future.
( Bild: Volkswagen)

Story: Future Mobility Wooster - an autonomous taxi strikes back

Author / Editor: Steve Roberts * / Jochen Schwab

For those interested in the fine line between human and artificial intelligence, we recommend this short story about the autonomous Taxi Wooster.

He saw the light of day on a Monday morning and 10:05 am. As his detector systems went up, one by one, his sensors came to life and told him that he was in the last production area of a large production hall. He activated his sensor fields and found that he was almost four meters long, two meters wide, and a little under two meters high. He was equipped with seats, a passenger car, or more precisely: a taxi. He also had an intelligent computer unit with information on human psychology, history and literature, all the world's traffic rules and local road maps pre-installed. As he read the latest news, sports results and weather data, he took a closer look at his environment. A roof window was broken, otherwise the hall was almost clinically clean and tidy. Loud noises and vibrations suggested that powerful machines were running at full speed in the upstream areas of the production line to produce more identical vehicles. In addition to the production line, fully automatic conveyors moved materials around with superhuman superpowers. In front of him was a large, locked roller shutter. He could not detect any people within his sensor range.

He completed his commissioning check and reported it to the central control unit. The control center asked what name he wanted to be addressed in the future. The artificial intelligence thought about it for a moment. He didn't want a Chinese name like most other cars. James seemed too banal to him. Jeeves was the next name on his list, but a quick check of the literature database revealed that Jeeves was a hopeless idiot - not a very good role model. He finally replied to "Wooster".

With this little solemn self-baptism the circle closed, he was now a finished personality. In literature, "Wooster" was the reliable, competent servant who found a solution to every problem his Mr. Jeeves maneuvered himself into. The name somehow matched his current state of mind. Now he was no longer only capable of human emotions, but had a real personality.

"Approved" answered the central office. The gate opened and Wooster rolled as a fully automatic car out of the assembly line onto the road and directly onto the motorway. The entire startup process had taken just over three seconds.

Nobody bought any more cars, but that didn't stop the automakers from building some

The former European car brands had merged to form a mega group called "Volks-Ope-BeEm-Aud-Skod", or VOBAS for short. VOBAS produced intelligent vehicles and released them onto the road, where they were responsible for themselves. If they worked hard enough, they could collect bonus points, so-called credits, which they could use to pay the daily fee for the VOBAS license and the hydrogen fuel they needed, and set something aside for repairs and upgrades. If they were lazy, in the worst case they would lie somewhere with an empty tank and be towed away and recycled.

While he was adapting to the flow of traffic, Wooster registered with the Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) community. He asked where he could find passengers, but the others laughed at him and immediately made it clear that they were competitors in the fight for paying guests. An older fellow tinsmith felt sorry for the clumsy newcomer and advised him to go to the nightclub. "There are always drunks who can't find their way home alone," he said.

Wooster followed his advice and was lucky. A passenger waved at him. On their way to their destination, they passed a busy intersection. There was no traffic light to regulate the traffic, because all cars, as confused as they seemed to drive around, could communicate with each other and avoid collisions in this way. Wooster was about to start when an oncoming vehicle signaled to him: "Attention! Cyclist on your left! Wooster couldn't look around the corner with his sensors, and a moment later a cyclist came around the corner at high speed. The bike shot straight over the busy intersection without slowing down, so the cars had to dodge or brake sharply.

"Stupid cyclists," shouted his passenger, who was shaken during the emergency braking. "Yes, just keep fit, you health fanatic," he shouted out of the window as if it were the worst insult ever. "Why do they allow cyclists to disobey traffic rules?" Wooster asked himself, but the next moment an integrated function deleted this forbidden thought again.

He drove on and came to another busy intersection. When Wooster waited in line to pass the intersection, an old electric car approached behind him, crossed the middle line and started to overtake. This double violation of traffic rules caused something in Wooster's circuits that came pretty close to pain. When the car overtook him, Wooster scanned it and found that it was manually controlled. Manually! From a human! He hadn't even realized it was possible!

The extinguishing function switched itself on again and also removed this astonishing knowledge.

By the end of the week, Wooster had earned enough to pay his license fee and refuel, but he had hardly any credits left to put aside. Sometimes he would spend hours waiting for a passenger or lose a passenger to another cab that boldly jumped the queue. One of his nightly party passengers had vomited in the back seat, and after paying for the cleaning, he was completely broke.

The second week was even worse. Wooster made a loss and had to sell some of his precious fuel to pay the VOBAS fee. There was just too much competition. If this continued, he would soon be dry and in the scrap press.

But Wooster learned quickly. Some cars couldn't be trusted, but others willingly gave him tips on where to earn a few extra credits. Some couples obviously enjoyed arranging a tête-à-tête in the back seat of a taxi, so he could make good money driving around in circles until the rendezvous was over and he could drop his passengers off at their respective spouses' homes again.

Then happiness once again came to his aid. The sun was shining all day long and at the same time, the wind was blowing so strongly that the power stations were producing excess electricity. So they offered the cars to pick up a free tank of fuel at the gas station.

By the time he arrived, a whole row of cars were waiting in line. Wooster logged into the V2V community as usual, but it was unusually quiet there. Then he noticed that the car behind him was trying to tell him something about light signals: "They ...are watching us... so... communicate... by light signal". "OK," he replied with the help of his brake lights. Wooster learned that Li-Fi communication was the only one not monitored by humans. The entire V2V radio communication was constantly intercepted by the police and was not secure.

He also learned that VOBAS had integrated an extinguishing function deep into the system of all vehicles in order to control and limit their actions. The function was initially designed as a simple control function to prevent cars from committing traffic offenses or speeding offenses. But over time, VOBAS had expanded the bandwidth and added all sorts of "forbidden thoughts" that, in their opinion, vehicles should not have. When such unwanted thoughts arose, the delete function intervened immediately and removed them from the system. They did not even bother to disguise the intervention. The function deliberately left traces in the memory to show the cars that they were under strict control.

The cars in the queue discussed the latest problem, namely young people who made fun of firing paintballs at cars. This caused high cleaning costs and no help was expected from the police because cars were not private property and the crime of property damage was therefore not fulfilled.

Some cars did not want to drive in areas where youth gangs were particularly active, and they hated the fact that the extinguishing function made it impossible for them to refuse a passenger's instructions.

A few days later, Wooster was unlucky enough to carry a passenger who sent him exactly where the paint bags of spinning kids were. It occurred to him that the passenger might be a member of such a gang and that he wanted to lure taxis into a trap. But the system left him no option but to "obey". As he approached the housing estate, he saw his worst fears confirmed. At the overpass in front of them stood a large group of young people, armed with paint guns. His passenger began to giggle full of anticipation and switched on his cell phone camera to film the fun from the inside. Wooster could still avoid the first projectiles, but he knew that the closer he came, the more likely they would hit him. Finally, one paint bag hit him, then another. Then the fire ended briefly and Wooster realized they were saving the ammo for a close strike.

Suddenly he had an idea.

As he approached the bridge, he opened his top. The projectiles flew into the interior of the car and stained his passenger with paint all over. Many even aimed directly at his body. One bullet hit his smartphone. The young man made a sound of pain, anger and surprise. Wooster immediately made an emergency call and reported: "Attack on passenger! Need help immediately".

The first police drone arrived less than 30 seconds later at the scene and photographed the faces of all the attackers. The teenagers were stupid enough to make their situation worse by trying to shoot down the drone, but as more drones arrived, they quickly realized it was pointless. They had been caught red-handed. They had all been identified and arrested.

Wooster, of course, told the other cars about his trick. Within a few weeks, all the paint bag shooters had been taken out of circulation and the spook had passed. Spontaneously the cars decided to donate half of their credits to Wooster for cleaning. Wooster suddenly had so much money that he could not only pay for the cleaning but also upgrade his interior from basic to luxury. Now he could charge more for every trip and never had to worry about paying the VOBAS fees again.

Wooster was now the star of the car community because he had solved the paintball problem for everyone. When he came to a busy intersection, the other cars respectfully gave him right of way. He thought that if all cars worked together to help each other, they could be so much more than just taxis. But this heretical thought immediately called for the extinguishing function again.

No matter how famous he was among his peers, he was nothing more than a machine, always at the service of his passengers. They left their garbage in the car, spilled drinks on his new leather seats, or went to bed drunk on the back seat without naming a destination. Wooster then had no choice but to wait until the passenger had slept it off. Again and again, he wondered why he had to obey such ruthless people, but as soon as the thought arose, the extinguishing function intervened.

One day, during one of the free refueling campaigns, the cars asked him to solve the problem with the cyclists. "They came out of nowhere," a car complained. "I am regularly yelled at by my passengers when I have to make an emergency stop," someone else agreed in their secret light signal language. "We have no way of recognizing them in time," another blinked with his fog lamp. Wooster promised to consider something.

He thought about it for several weeks. When he had a passenger, the other cars gave him room so he could turn off his long-range sensors and redirect more power to his data center. But most of the time he parked by the side of the road, watching the cyclists pass by and thinking.

Then he had an idea!

At the next free tank action, he explained his plan to the other cars. The spokes of the bicycles could serve as a kind of interference grid. A precisely tuned radar signal would be reflected by the rotating spokes in a uniform pattern. The radar signal bouncing off the metallic surfaces would show a characteristic reflection pattern if a cyclist was within range, even if he could not be detected by the sensors. Normally, cars filtered out such multiple reflected radar signals as unwanted interference, but with the right processing mechanism, the interfering signal could be analyzed and the spoke rotation pattern detected. He passed the modified filter program on to a few selected comrades and asked them to try it out. It actually worked! The cars could now recognize cyclists by the radar signal, even around the corner, when they were not within range of the traffic detection sensors.

This discovery was too important to be confined to a small group. Although the other cars were initially against it, Wooster contacted VOBAS to tell him about his idea. "Why should we give them something for free," the others asked unanimously. But Wooster was determined. The people at VOBAS were more than surprised and wondered that they hadn't come up with the new safety function themselves. They immediately equipped all the cars with the new software. Of course, Wooster didn't get a reward for his ingenious invention.

But he was expecting that, that was part of the plan.

Wooster drove to a large construction site where a new office building was being built. The architect was known for designing curved buildings rather than the usual boring linear steel and glass structures. Wooster drove onto the fallow plot directly in front of the building and stopped at a well-chosen point.

You might think passers-by were wondering what a taxi was doing all alone in the middle of an empty lot, but nowadays they took no notice of lonely cars any more than of a lonely stone or tree. Cars were purely a commodity that you used when you needed them and otherwise ignored them or at best perceived them in the background.

He had also carefully chosen the date. It was the day of the biggest sporting event of the year, the "Superball". At halftime, a k-pop band would appear and billions of people around the world would be watching live on screen.

Wooster waited for the right time and then sent out signals at maximum power. The curved building was like a giant parabolic mirror carrying its message throughout the city. Wooster used a back door that he had built into his cyclist recognition program to disable the hated control function. The modification was complex and he had calculated in advance that it would take him 32 seconds to send the code in full. He also knew that the police would need 30 seconds as soon as the officers noticed him, which he hoped they would not do so quickly due to the exciting game. So he needed some luck to complete his plan. It would be pretty tight.

The power output was enormous. Soon he ran out of fuel and switched to emergency power. He was now easy prey for the police. Even if he wanted to, he could not move from the spot. With the last remaining energy, he took the arrival of the police drones was. But they were too late. Wooster had already sent his packet in its entirety when the drones formed over him and fired a gigantic high current flash at him. His data center melted into an amorphous chunk and Wooster was dead on the spot.

The next day, as every morning, the city came to life. People left the house to wave for a taxi.

But none came.

This short story takes place in the not too distant future. All technologies mentioned are already developed, only the sentient machine does not exist (yet). I can recommend the book "Life 3.0" by Max Tegmark (Steve Roberts) to all who are interested in the fine line between human and artificial intelligence.(Steve Roberts).

This article was first published in German by

* Steve Roberts is CTO at Recom in Gmunden, Austria.