What Commute?

By: S. G. Lacey

9:36 AM: Late Departure

I’m already running late; a product of my overindulgence last night.  This seems to be happening a lot lately. 

I shuffle up the narrow, carpeted staircase leading out of my tiny, mother-in-law basement apartment in the suburbs of Hayward, California.  Undoing the rusty deadbolt, I have to shift backwards awkwardly to accommodate the exterior door, which inexplicably opens inward.  I’m able to pass through this obstacle without hooking my briefcase strap on the door handle, an annoyance which has happened twice already this week. 

Confidence is high, until I stumble and nearly fall navigating the three half-height stairs which lead to the carport.  This covered parking is one of the only redeeming features of my current, hopefully temporary, housing situation.

Here sits my prize procession, a new Tesla H small hybrid SUV.  She’s gunmetal grey, with dark window tinting that nearly matches the color of the vehicle’s exterior paint in the foggy haze that personifies a Bay Area winter morning.  The only woman currently in my life, I’ve named the car Guinevere after the strong-willed lady of the Middle Ages, who is often portrayed riding her own grey mare.

Though the vehicle is average width, it barely fits inside the narrow carport.  This space must have been designed for a golf cart. 

As a result, I must turn sideways and shimmy along the bumpy wall of wooden 2” x 4”s, where no efforts were ever made at insulation or sheetrock.  My belly, larger now at 47 than in my younger years, is the main incumbrance.  Panting heavily, I finally squeeze into the car, cursing as the door bangs against a nail ridden stud, no doubt leaving a scratch.    

As usual, I settle into the plush, tan leather of the front, passenger’s side seat.  Most noticeable at present is the cool comfort of this copilot nest.  Once car manufacturers realized that humans would no longer be at risk of dozing off behind the wheel, eliminating major safety concerns, incredible advances have been made in car seat accommodations. 

My current position is a glorified massage chair, equipped with climate control: both cooling to avoid swamp ass in work slacks, and heating for chilly, damp mornings like this.  Also, a variety of positional adjustment are available: lumbar support, a foot rest, built-in neck pillow like being on an airplane, etc.. 

Immediately after purchasing my new ride, I’d spent a few hours getting the various levers and knobs adjusted.  It would have been a foolish sight if anyone could have seen my seated thrashing in the carport, writhing around like a dog in the grass trying to get comfortable.  But now, I have my main three seat settings saved, labelled as “Focus”, “Relax”, and “Sleep”. 

Swinging around and dumping my briefcase on the back seat, I give Gweny her destination via voice command, then hit the “Sleep” button on the arm rest.  I’m snoring before the car has left my cul-de-sac.

10:03 AM: Breakfast, On The Run

As we approach Starbucks my body is already anticipating the pending caffeine infusion.  The nearly 30-minute nap which Guinevere gently awakes me from, using the soothing sound of church bells through the stereo, is just what I needed.  Hopefully a coffee will kick the last remnants of the lingering hangover. 

Since my new vehicle purchase, I’d tried to make coffee at home a few times.  However, I soon realized that now, being completely unencumbered with the process of navigating the roads each morning, it makes more sense to enjoy my morning indulgence on the road.  While seemingly a clear timesaver, my recent string of 9:30 AM departures from home suggests there may be some reverse psychology coming into play.   

For all its benefits, there are a few challenges which the automated driving algorithms have taken some time to work out.  One of the most notable is drive-thru lines.  Brilliant distance sensing technology allows the car to smoothly navigate through even the tightest approach lanes without issue.  However, for all the engineering expertise, there is still no reliable way to get the car to stop at the correct location for either the order placement or pick-up. 

The first time navigating to Starbucks in my new car, with no one in line ahead of us, we’d simply cruised right around the entire drive-through and back out onto the main road, where the Tesla parallel parked automatically on the street.  On a few subsequent visits, I’d coaxed Gweny to desired spots, controlling speed with the gas and brake paddle levers on the steering wheel, then logged the correct stopping point into the vehicle’s GPS memory.  By now, we have the morning coffee routine dialed in nicely.

Delicately sipping the black scalding liquid, or what’s left after spilling while reaching across the driver’s seat to the barista’s outstretched arms, my mental frustration boils over.  How hard can it be to just switch the car flow from counter clockwise to clockwise around the building?  Or, maybe if enough people get on this self-driving car parade, adding delivery windows on the passenger side of the vehicle.  I have no doubt some fundament drive-through layout changes will be made once a critical autonomous mass is reached on the roads. 

My experiences over the past month of fast food ordering have left me with some innovative thoughts on the next steps in the self-driving progression.  My personal favorite is license plate recognition which would automatically submit the Grande Americano with 2 creams order I place every time.  There must be a start-up company is Silicon Valley working towards these electronic solutions.

For now, I’ll just have to suffer through placing my order verbally like all the other commoners.

10:22 AM: Multimedia Conundrum

Now that I have some breakfast in my stomach, it’s time to get down to work.  The first order of business is to put some entertainment on.  Listening to some tunes helps me relax and focus on tasks while in the car.

However, unable to find any suitable music on the radio, I decide to put on something informational instead.  I’ve recently been trying to help myself become more cultured, as opposed to the mindless, repetitive drivel of news talk radio.  In this pursuit, I found a podcast summarizing the content of various podcasts.  While seemingly circuitous, this has proved to be a valuable resource for quickly screening the massive landscape of educational audio programs available online these days.

Using the voice recognition feature in my ride, I navigate to the desired podcast.  Each episode is focused on a certain segment of the multimedia landscape: sports, technology, movies, finance, etc..  The current show is on mental health, reviewing 12 different offerings over the course of an hour, or 30 minutes at 2X audio speed which is my preferred approach.  Several of these, including the pieces on motivation, meditation, and work-life balance seemed relevant to my job at a venture capital firm so I considered this task to essentially be working.

While listening, I aimlessly scroll through content on my cellphone.  Starting with work e-mail, I quickly get distracted on Twitter, somewhat relevant to work, then Facebook, completely unrelated to my job functions.  Though I have my laptop in the back seat, I rarely use it during the workday unless I need to pull up a pitch deck or portfolio materials at a client meeting.

Speaking of clients, conveniently, just as the podcast ends my phone rings, or to be more accurate, via Bluetooth the car speakers blare out my ring tone, “Money For Nothing” by Dire Straits, which is tied to all work-related contacts.  I answer with a press of the button on the center console, and am treated to the shrill, direct voice of Jack, one of my business contacts with connections throughout the Bay Area, especially in the massively booming tech sector.

“Mikey, I’ve got a new Fintech opportunity for you to check out in the Financial District?  Can you make it over here before noon?”

I glance at the GPS in front of me, a sea of red lines, and reply, “Might be tough, I’m headed south near Fremont on I-880 now, but can loop around and head that way.”

“Sounds good, drive safe,” Jack finishes with a chuckle before hanging up.  He’s clearly firing a jab at my new car.  There’s a distinct divide in the adoption of self-driving automobile technology and Jack’s one of the naysayers.

11:51 AM: Multitasking On The Road

Traffic around San Francisco is even more sluggish than usual this morning and, 45 minutes after talking with Jack, I’m just getting to I-80 junction at the east side of the Bay Bridge.  It’s becoming evident that I’m not going to make it to the potential client introduction in the Financial District.  Fortunately, via text exchange Jack agrees to meet at Fisherman’s Wharf for lunch to talk through the particulars of the opportunity.   

Autonomous or otherwise, my ride is still at the mercy of weekday traffic.  I’ve been spending a lot of hours in the car lately, with plenty of time to formulate thoughts on the current state of automobile transportation. 

Ever since purchasing this automated vehicle I’ve had a seating conundrum.  While in the driver’s seat, I always feel like I need to watch the road and react; obviously this is not necessary with the current specialized sensing technology.  The passenger seat provides less concern with instinctual driving reactions; however, comes with its own set of challenges. 

First, I never realized how much road perspective and lane position depends on seating. My ex-wife, far from an expert behind the wheel, made me tense any time I let her drive; usually because I was too inebriated to get us home safely.  However, the prospect of no driver at all sitting next to me has a profoundly different effect.  I have no one to yell at, no one to banter with, no one to blame; thus, must reluctantly concede the fact that my car’s lane position is explicitly correct at all times, meaning my own perception of the center line and median need to be adjusted accordingly. 

The rear seats would be a great option, except I haven’t sat in the back besides Uber transportation since I was a child.  Even this hasn’t happened in several years, since Uber has been so successful with their optimization algorithms that 2-seat “mini cars” are the only available option for single passenger fares like me.

Glancing up and out the windshield, I watch Guinevere navigate smoothly west across the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco.  She makes six lane changes along the 4.5-mile crossing and, at one point, maneuvers effortlessly between a tractor trailer in the “fast” lane and a minivan with a flat tire which has barely pulled off onto the narrow shoulder.  Throughout the passage, my pulse doesn’t even quicken; I simply sit stoically taking in the iconic San Francisco skyline slightly to my right.      

12:31 PM: Food Truck Lunch

My stomach, and bowels, are growling; likely a result of being seated in the same position for three hours after a “Grande” cup of joe.

The current destination, Fisherman’s Wharf, houses one of the best spots for authentic fish and chips in town.  It also happens to be one of the most crowded areas in the city on a Friday afternoon: an eclectic combination of street vendors, business workers, gawking tourists, and, of course, homeless panhandlers. 

In the past, I would have spent 20 minutes driving around looking for a parking spot.  Now however, my Tesla simply pulls up to the curb at the crosswalk leading to the Hyde Street Pier.  I jump out quickly, patting Gweny on the shiny grey rear quarter panel for good luck as she quietly sidles off. 

Maybe there will be an available parallel parking spot down the street.  If not, the car can just take a few loops around the park until I text to summon her back.  It’s like having a personal chauffeur, who doesn’t try to make conversation.

30 minutes later I’m stuffed, having polished off four pieces of flakey white cod encased in a golden beer batter, a heaping mound of thick cut steak fries, and a Styrofoam cup of refreshing, tangy vinegar-based coleslaw.  This tasty meal is all produced and pedaled out of an unassuming food truck in an alley which Jack and I stumbled on a few years ago. 

As we walk along the pier, digesting our meal and exchanging business opportunities, I track my car’s progress via cellphone.  As I reach the identified intersection, a grey driverless SUV, my car, pulls up.  I bid Jack adieu with a smile, then slowly climb into the passenger seat, still incumbered by the massive lunch.

Time to get back to work.  I flip open my laptop and immediately notice an issue.  My hands are still so greasy they slip off the keyboard and slime up the computer’s touch screen.  No matter how many recycled brown paper napkins I use, this oily residue isn’t going away.  No worries, I can use the voice dictation system in the car to check and reply to e-mail until I find some soap.  Hopefully this will be soon, based on my continued lower abdomen grumblings.  

In fact, this stomach condition may necessitate stopping before I get to into the Santa Clara office.  With all the technology advancements in recent years, there’s still not a great way to find close public restrooms.  Maybe this is a business opportunity; I make a mental note to suggest this app idea to my business partners when I get to headquarters.

1:55 PM: Conference Call

Thank god for mobile alerts.  As I roll south down Highway 101 looking out over the choppy San Francisco Bay, my iPhone starts to buzz incessantly.  A client call, Series A funding round, I usually prefer to have this type of meeting in person at our office.  However, considering the potential backers are in Japan, 16 hours ahead, this approach is not an option and the investment opportunity is too good to pass up.  

A force of habit, I still use a headset for conference calls in the car.  My new vehicle is essentially silent inside, and there is clearly no risk of a ticket for hands-free operation with my autonomous ride, but I prefer the audible reliance of a headset, from both a voice and hearing standpoint.

Donning my headgear like Mission Control navigating Apollo 11 in for the moon landing, I dial into the global video conference at exactly 6 AM Tokyo time.  Behind my car seat on the passenger side is a non-descript grey cloth drop, Gweny could care less about seeing out the back window. 

Knowing the discussion is scheduled for an hour, and will likely go long, I put Half Moon Bay State Beach off the Pacific Coast Highway 1 into the car’s GPS.  During this lengthy negotiation, I may as well enjoy some lovely ocean scenery; the soothing perpetuality of the waves helps me relax and focus.

With my headset, backdrop, and dash mounted camera, I can appear the most intent and focused participant on any conference call, seeming phoning in from a tiny secluded room with no distractions.  Unbeknownst to them, I can easily be listening to rap on the way to Las Vegas.

3:18 PM: Decisions, Decisions

              This, as they say, is a fork in the road, in this case both metaphorically and literally.  My car stereo clock displays the digits “3:18” in bright blue light, block letters; the small dot on the right of the numbers denoting PM.  Never trusting car clocks, I glance down at my cell phone, the sleep screen confirms the same time.  No surprise, or help, there.

              I lean forward from my reclined front, passenger side seat and pull the oversized tablet screen off the dashboard mount in front of me.  This was the traditional location of the glove box, but no one wears gloves to drive any more, if they drive at all.  Also, I’m not up to speed on the current passenger airbag regulations, mine seems to have disappeared in this new car, but trust the automotive engineers to have figured out something clever.    

My vehicle doesn’t need to see the route to drive, but I have decisions to make.  I press the button which selects the Santa Clara office address, confirming my suspicions: 46 minutes in current traffic.  Arriving after 4 PM doesn’t make a lot of sense. 

              I check the other destination option, home.  An equally depressing 57 minutes, is calculated by the sophisticated real-time traffic calculator.  At my current position near the Stanford University campus, I know I’m approximately the same aerial distance to each location, with my vehicle creating an 3rd tip of essentially an equilateral triangle.  Granted, there’s meandering highways, intermittent traffic, and bridges over water to consider in the real world.

              Mentally waffling, I punch aimlessly at the “Refresh” button on the navigation display as if it will make a decision for me.  Honestly, the moment I grabbed the control dock I’d already chosen; to spend another two-plus hours in the car just to show face at the office makes no sense.  I can make some founder check-in calls, or shoot off a few update e-mails with my phone on the way home.    

              “Guinevere, we’re headed back to the stable!” I exclaim.  Through a combination of voice recognition and machine learning, this seemingly cryptic phrase now yields the same result as simply punching my suburban Hayward home address into the navigation system.  My trusty steed moves right two lanes in quick succession and prepares to exit the highway.

3:49 PM: All Jammed Up

              I’ve made this drive east on I-84 so many times that the scenery, both natural and manmade, is second nature.  The V-shaped concrete pilons of the Dumbarton Bridge, the flat green grass expanse of Coyote Hills Park, the occasional glint of sunlight off the San Francisco Bay; all of these are now ingrained visual cues.

What is perpetually dynamic and everchanging, especially in this bumper to bumper traffic, are the passing automobiles and their occupants.  Case and point, on my left side one of these newfangled tiny Smart cars rolls by.  It’s black interior, as most of them are, is in stark contrast to the exceedingly white, and exceedingly obese, woman behind the wheel.  It’s a wonder she could squeeze into this vehicle, and even more impressive that the tiny motor can propel her down the road, let alone at a speed faster than I’m currently traveling. 

Turning in disgust for several reasons, to my right a red flash catches my eye.  The new Toyota Highlander: an autonomous, electric, full size SUV, complete with all the bells and whistles.  Not a cheap ride, but apparently well worth it for those who can afford one. 

Initially distracted by the car itself, my attention quickly shifts to the passengers.  Dynamic window tinting is one of the new features offered on this Toyota model, but my highway neighbors don’t seem to be using this technology currently.  In the front driver’s seat, approximately 8 feet straight right of my own position, are not one but two, middle aged, adults in various states of disrobing.  Now that’s a good use of hands-free navigation, though they may need to come up with a new term.  Life in the fast lane indeed.  Catching one more glimpse before this red streak passes by, I smirk in disbelief. 

Still incredulous, I turn my sexual tension on my car, the only woman who seems to listen to me.  

“With the most modern navigation software and real time traffic updates, how are we getting passed on both sides?” I blurt out in frustration. 

In a cruel twist, my rhetorical question spoken aloud is answered by Guinevere in a pleasant female voice with a tinge of Swedish accent, “This lane speeds up in 200 ft.”

4:29 PM: Happy Hour At Home

As my trusty automated vehicle pulls into the driveway, I try to figure out what I’ve actually accomplished today.  E-mails – check, good lunch – check, conference call – check, new venture opportunity – possibly, physical interaction with co-workers – maybe tomorrow, hangover recovery – ongoing, but we’ll see how the night progresses.

As we approach the covered concrete pad, the passenger door opens and I instinctively hop out.  This is way easier than wedging my wide frame along the carport wall, and Gweny has no issues parking on her own.

Grabbing my briefcase, handle still slippery with grease from lunch, I close the passenger side door and enter the cell phone code to shut the Tesla down for the night.  I walk ahead, and my new car follows, safely backing into its spot in the stable for the night. 

Nodding in approval, I turn and look forward just in time to run headlong into my road bike hanging from the rafters at the back of the carport.  Dust cascades down to the concrete floor, mingling with a few drops of blood from the new gash in my forehead.  I haven’t ridden the bike since buying the Tesla, content to explore the local wine country via car comfort rather than pedal power. 

Cursing under my breath, I fumble through the briefcase for the necessary keys to enter my residence.  Keys, what an archaic concept, when will everything be as automated and insightful as my car?  I glance up at the battered white door leading down to my sparsely furnished dungeon apartment where another dull evening awaits.

              Turning around purposefully, I bend over stiffly and select a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from the minifridge sitting in the back corner of the carport.  Heading back to the car, I hit the “Relax” mode on the seat, and ask my lady Guinevere to put on the San Francisco Giants baseball game, which is just starting on the East Coast.  Maybe I’ll just sleep out here tonight. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.