'The key to autonomous driving is obvious to anyone with half a brain'

Porter's a fly on the wall in a critical moment within the biggest automotive R&D's quest for autonomous driving success

Porter

The Genius watched the explosion on the screen with cold, impassive eyes. As the burning debris fell across the launch site he calmly tapped the side of his wireless headset and spoke. ‘Have them build another one,’ he said flatly. ‘I want it ready by next week.’ He went to pull off the headset, paused, then spoke again: ‘Also, Natalie, send my condolences to the families.’ 

With that he tossed the headset onto his vast glass desk and turned away from the huge screen to face the room. In it stood Carter Chase. He’d been there for the past 47 minutes, awkwardly wondering when would be a good time to find out why he had been summoned. The Genius looked him up and down, like a snake sizing up its prey, and detected that Carter was somewhat distracted by the burning wreckage on the screen behind him. 

‘Broad integers suggest a random vector in the sub-optimal range relative to fuel system integrity,’ he said smoothly. 

Carter hated it when The Genius did this, using quasi-scientific language in an attempt to sound smart. It was nonsense, of course. Carter knew actual scientific language because he had a doctorate in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon, though he also knew not to mention this within earshot of The Genius because The Genius always had to be the smartest guy in the room. 

> ‘I was given Murray Walker’s number and invited to ring him at home. A voice answered. That voice’

‘Carter, thanks for stopping by,’ The Genius purred, jabbing a button on his desk to shut off the big screen and its distracting images of an unpleasant aftermath. ‘I want to talk to you about this autonomous driving crap.’ 

Carter recognised this as one of The Genius’s standard plays: a folksy welcome, and then an immediate sucker punch to put you on the back foot. Carter rolled with it. Tried not to let his face betray his discomfort at having his life’s work reduced to ‘crap’. One of The Genius’s eyes twitched a little, as it often did. 

‘Yea, so the whole auto-drive hoopla, it’s not really working for me,’ he continued. ‘A lot of years, a lot of money, and I hate to say it, Dr Head of Engineering, but we’re not there.’

The Genius paused. Carter knew this trick too. Leave a gap. A conversational vacuum. Carter knew better than to start jabbering apologies or, worse still, engage in aggressive push-back. Bland acquiescence, that was the best policy. 

‘Progress has been slower than hoped, absolutely,’ he said softly. ‘I would appreciate your feedback on how best to progress.’ That was a good trick, too. Bow at the altar of The Genius and let him bring his self-styled brilliance to bear upon the problem. 

‘I’ve been thinking about this a lot, Carter. And I have a solution,’ The Genius smiled in that way he mistakenly believed was charming. ‘Monkeys.’ 

Carter felt himself sag with despair. ‘Monkeys?’ he repeated. ‘What… um, what kind of monkeys?’ 

‘What kind of monkeys?!’ exclaimed The Genius. ‘The kind of monkeys that can drive a fricking car, my friend! Those kind of monkeys! Sheesh. It’s obvious!’ 

‘I’m not certain that kind of monkey exists,’ blurted Carter, his incredulity steamrollering his natural sense of self-preservation.

‘No, it doesn’t exist in nature, but we train them, Carter. Use your damn imagination for once. We breed the monkeys in monkey farms using cloning technology and then train them to take control of the car. The monkey drives the car for you! It’s brilliant! The cost per unit will be way lower than all your sensors and systems, and kids will love it!’ 

Carter took a deep breath. ‘Can we be certain this will be safe?’ he asked, cautiously. 

‘Of course it’s safe,’ shouted The Genius. ‘Monkeys are practically people. In many ways they’re better than people because they can live in a glove compartment and do jobs we don’t want to do such as, oh I don’t know Mr So-Called Smart Guy, driving a car!’

‘Okay, yeah, I get it,’ stammered Carter, though he very much did not ‘get it’. ‘I’ll initiate a research program immediately.’

‘Yeah, you better had,’ muttered The Genius, tapping furiously at his phone. ‘I already prepared my next Insta story. Look!’ The screen showed a crudely manipulated image of a chimp in a top hat at the wheel of a car. The animated caption read: ‘Monkey driving technology coming 2022, NO JOKE. Order NOW!’ 

‘Cancel your autonomous whatevers, fire the suppliers, do what you’ve got to do, get me those driving monkeys and get me them now!’ The Genius cackled. Carter summoned what little strength he had left to be bold. ‘You’re sure about this?’ he asked. 

‘Of course I’m sure,’ laughed The Genius, his eye twitching quite visibly now. ‘I’m a goddam genius!’ 

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