The Day the World Stopped Driving
“Energy usage is at nearly 100% of your daily quota,” the friendly, robotic voice announced through speakers into the kitchen.
Becky froze in horror. The oven, which held her completely uncooked lasagna, began to power down, and the lights dimmed around her.
“100%? HALI, are you sure?” She asked. “It’s not even dinner time yet.”
“I’ve detected an extra presence in the house. Perhaps that’s the cause?”
“What the hell happened to the lights?” bellowed a gruff voice from upstairs.
“Oh!” said Becky. “My father is staying with us. I completely forgot to register him.”
“Wonderful,” the voice said pleasantly, “I’ll transfer his energy quota from his house to this one.”
Within seconds, the lights were shining at full wattage, the oven was back to temperature, and Becky’s father was grumbling his way into the kitchen.
“Damned technology,” he said to Becky. “I thought it’d be smarter than this by now.”
Becky shrugged, “We have ours set to minimum energy usage. HALI won’t increase the usage, even for guests, unless we tell her to. And after the way you raised me, I’ve of course turned facial recognition off. HALI can’t tell who you are or which house the energy quota should be transferred from until I tell her. I just forgot to add you today. It’s been rather hectic day and all, what with Brian breaking his leg this morning, and you coming to help out.”
Her father grunted in response.
“Speaking of which,” Becky continued, “How is the little guy?”
The old man broke into a grin. “I’ve got one hell of a grandson. Tough as nails he is. Not even a broken leg can get him down.”
Becky smiled, “Enjoy that while it lasts. I’m heading down to work while this cooks.”
Her father grunted in response.
The happy scent of paint brought a smile to Becky’s lips as she entered her basement studio. Little in life relaxed her like an assortment of colors to play with. Becky was an old-fashioned artist. She used real paint, real oil colors, real charcoal, real everything. No aspect of any of her creations was ever computer generated. As popular as AI-enhanced art was, critics still valued and sought work that was entirely a human creation. She lost herself in the colors while dinner cooked, but rejoined the world upstairs when she heard her husband come home.
Daniel was also creative, but much more modern with his career choice: he built in-house, greenhouse landscaping. With the financial and environmental cost of travel so high, many families instead chose to just add an extra space to their house that could mimic a beach or a jungle or a mountain. Daniel developed real landscaping within a greenhouse and paired that with virtual reality to give people the vacation or retreat they desired.
Becky’s father shook his head at the couple at dinner, wondering aloud for the umpteenth time how he’d ended up with a daughter and son-in-law who focused on the touchy-feely arts.
“I like computers, Grandpa!” Brian called out, bringing the dinner conversation back to him, after the adults had spent too much time talking about Becky’s and Daniel’s careers.
His grandfather chuckled. “And you’re brilliant at them,” he replied.
The meal ended, dishes were done, and the family had moved into the main sitting area. Evening was rolling into night, and the lights in the house began to dim again.
“Energy usage is near 100% of your daily quota,” HALI told the group.
“Thank you, HALI,” Daniel answered, and then turned to his family, “Do we have anything we need to save before it gets powered down?”
“Nope!” said Brian. “All I did was watch movies and play games. Oh! Granddad, you saved our game, right?”
“Of course I did,” the old man responded gruffly. “I never lose data.”
They were settling into the main family room, where wall-sized windows allowed them to gaze out onto the dimming city before them. The whole time zone was shutting down for the night.
“Granddad, can you tell me about the day the world stopped driving?” Brian asked out of nowhere.
His grandfather froze.
MerlinsDoveTHW logged onto the RPG. Half his team was already online, while the rest joined soon after. This was it. After years of battling fictitious enemies in their cyber world, they were bringing their cyber skills to the real world. For too long his group had watched the powers that be squander their real natural resources, while citizens around the world did nothing more than hope that someone would magically fix the system. His team was about to do just that; but with computers, not magic.
The voice of DaphneDuMaurier007 came through the system. “MerlinsDove, we’re all here and ready to take the fight to the next level.”
The group had coordinated this attack through their interactions within the game using coded language that could easily be mistaken for normal conversation between teams in the game.
“Good,” said MerlinsDoveTHW into his microphone. “You each know your targets. Let’s bring this world to its knees.”
It was time to stop the cars.
After an awkward moment, the old man said, “What do you mean?”
“That’s what we’re learning about in school,” responded the boy, “Mom said you were alive when all the world drove. So you were there the day the world stopped driving.”
Becky’s father breathed an audible sigh of relief, and Becky and Daniel exchanged confused glances.
“Right,” answered the old man, “But the world didn’t stop driving. You’ve been in cars, right?”
“Yeah,” said the boy, “But only when we borrow cars to drive out of the city. You used to actually own a car, didn’t you?”
The old man grinned. “Damned right I did. I owned a Tesla. Now that was a machine. But computerized. All of the new cars were connected to the Internet of Things. If you were middle class or richer, your car was connected. Poor people had older cars, so it’s just a myth about the stopping all the cars.”
“But what happened?” asked the boy. “We only learned that it happened and helped start to change the world into what it is today, but the teachers don’t like to talk too much about it.”
His grandfather chuckled. “Nope. You’re teachers are probably scared of giving you kids bad ideas.” He chuckled again, and then continued. “It was a group of hackers. They, er, well, the official government review said that a really large group of hackers worked together to figure out how to access different vehicle systems. Then they synchronized their work, and hacked into every connected car at the same time and just turned them off. They turned off every single connected car. Something like 1/2 of the world’s cars were connected at that time. And even better, the hack prevented anyone from turning the cars back on. When the cars died, they clogged up the roads, so no one could drive anywhere. People were stranded all over the world. It was amazing.”
Becky interrupted. “I can’t imagine it would feel so amazing if you’d gotten stuck somewhere.”
“Nope. I was at home.” He paused and then laughed to himself. “All the damned rich people suffered the most. It was pretty funny. That was a time when income inequality was a big issue, so we all felt like we were sticking it to the man. It took the governments and industries weeks to get that problem sorted out. I mean, you know how slow government agencies are. Just imagine governments around the world trying to work together. Then throw in all the car companies trying to work with these governments and each other without giving away any secrets. It was a disaster. They couldn’t get anything done. People were livid. Rich people were livid.”
“And having livid rich people didn’t make life difficult for poorer people?” Becky asked.
MerlinsDoveTHW logged into the game, still overcome with excitement from his team’s success this week. He was surprised to see DaphneDuMaurier007 also online.
“Daphne, what are you doing here?”
“Working from home. This is amazing! I can’t believe we did it! And now I can’t even get in to work. I get to sit here and strategize with you all on one monitor, while I work on the other. If only life could stay like this forever!”
“Not as much as you’d expect,” her father replied. “Too many people couldn’t get to work. For at least a few days, the roads were blocked by stranded cars, so even the older cars couldn’t get very far. A lot of people figured out how to do a lot of their work from home. Not being able to drive anywhere was like an unplanned, universal experiment to see if people could work as effectively from home. Obviously it didn’t work for everyone, but a hell of a lot of people discovered just how much more relaxed their lives could be without the pressures of commuting to work everyday. They had more family time because it wasn’t wasted in the commute. They used things like Skype to hold meetings with coworkers. They also held fewer meetings which meant they were able to get more done. Most people had bikes, so folks who really had to physically be at their jobs started riding their bikes more. In general, the whole world just started riding bikes more. While the world’s leaders were trying to get the cars running again, the regular people of the world started finding ways to deal with not having a car. They got healthier. They saved money. They had more time for the things they loved. What initially seemed like the end of the world started to seem like salvation. When the cars finally started running again, people resisted using them. The goal of this hack had been to help people see that they could live more fulfilling lives if they were less reliant on fossil fuels. And it worked.”
“But I thought HALI was part of the hack too. Where does she come in?” asked Brian.
MerlinsDoveTHW logged in and was disappointed to see that DaphneDuMaurier007 wasn’t online. They’d chatted every day of the car hack, and he hadn’t realized how much she’d grown on him until, suddenly, she disappeared. In fact, half their group was gone. “Did we get caught?” he thought in a panic.
WeepingAngel123 spoke up, “Merlin! Good to see you! Sucks to have the cars working again. Now half our group is back at work.”
MerlinsDoveTHW sighed in relief, “Damned companies sure brought people back fast.”
“Yep. You just blink, and all the people we’ve gotten used to seeing around here up and disappear because of those damned energy-sucking jobs they have to go to.”
“Huh. Maybe we need a second phase of attack.”
“We forgot how long change can take to happen,” his grandfather told him. “Usually major life changes take decades, or at least many years, but by that time, our climate didn’t have decades or even many years. We had to make people see that their lives could be both different and better. And we had to do it fast.”
Every time Becky’s father said “we,” Daniel tried to make eye contact with his wife, but she wouldn’t look at him. Her father kept talking.
“When the cars stopped, people got a taste of a different lifestyle, and they liked it. But when the cars started again, companies expected their employees to go back to usual routines. And employees didn’t have much choice. But they weren’t happy. They missed the extra family time, they missed how nice the extra exercise felt, they missed the money they’d been saving by not driving everywhere. Many tried to continue riding their bikes to work, and that helped, but it still wasn’t enough. More importantly, energy consumption was skyrocketing again.” He paused.
“Oh!” Brian interrupted excitedly. “The building hack! That’s what you did next right? We learned about that too.”
It was night, and the whole group back online for a new strategic planning mission.
“We need to make the enemy suffer for their actions against us,” DaphneDuMaurier007 was saying.
“This next attack needs to hit closer to home. We need to get inside the enemy’s lair,” responded MerlinsDoveTHW.
His grandfather hemmed and hawed, a little flustered. “Um, yes. The building hack is what happened next.”
He paused again, looking around the house, as though suddenly remembering where he was. He turned to Becky.
“You have voice recording disconnected, right? And your speaker system is separate from the grid, right?”
“Of course, Dad,” she said. “Remember, everything about HALI I learned from you, and Daniel isn’t allowed to touch anything to do with cybersecurity. It’s all me.”
Daniel smiled sheepishly at Becky’s father, who looked relieved.
“In that case,” the old man said to Brian, “let’s talk about your Home and Lifestyle Interface. HALI was just getting started back then. Everyone was going to have a personal assistant, and the first stage was a home system that could track your needs and connect with your appliances and electric grid, turning anything on or off via voice request. The next step was going to be robotic assistants that could do the cooking and cleaning.”
Brian interrupted again. “Like what Bridgette’s family has? Why don’t we have a robot?” He asked his mom.
Becky rolled her eyes. “Bridgette’s family spends a small fortune on tree plantations and other carbon offsets just to run that damned robot.”
Her father continued his story. “Robot technology hadn’t been sufficiently developed at that time, but the connectivity was there. Homes, cars, and personal electronics were all connected to each other. If you had music playing in your house, you could have it start where it left off when you got in your car. You could turn lights on and off by voice command. If you couldn’t remember if your car was locked, you could ask your house to lock it. If you couldn’t remember if your house was locked, you could ask your phone or car to check. HALI was the coolest trend, and anyone who could afford her, had her installed in their homes, cars, and offices. At the time, she was just starting to be used for energy efficiency. So you could turn off the heat in your house as you drove to work, and then, while you were still at the office, you could have her turn it back on, so it was warm when you got home. And vice versa. Buildings were getting a lot smarter, and people were making some attempts to improve their energy efficiency. But too much energy was still being wasted, even with expensive energy efficient setups. And people who couldn’t afford those setups were just as wasteful as ever. But this time was different because the poorer folks had just gone through the car hack, and for the most part, they’d liked it. So we hacked the buildings.”
Again, Daniel tried to make eye contact with his wife, but she stared intently at the wall across from her. Her father kept talking.
“The hackers went after the smart buildings to make them even smarter. If the building was a business, it shut down at 6 PM, and wouldn’t come back on until 7 AM the next morning. No lights, no heat, no air conditioning, no computer power. Oh, and the buildings were shut down over weekends too. It wasn’t long before people actually started working healthier hours and taking real time off. And of course we hacked the houses too. That was the most brilliant part. This time wealthier individuals were targeted. Not intentionally, but just because they were more likely to have this technology. When a home got hacked it was allocated a maximum daily energy usage. The home owner could do what they wanted with that allocation, but once the energy was used up, the house would shut down everything except absolute necessities. This was a much harder hack that took a lot more effort to maintain. But once a few of the victims began to realize that they were establishing a healthier work-life balance, the idea of energy allocations became more popular. This was the start of HALI as you know her Brian.”
As if on cue, HALI interrupted. “The house is shutting down now. Night lights will remain lit for 30 more minutes or until you shut them off. Good night.”
“How did people know when to sleep before HALI?” Brian asked.
His parents chuckled, but his grandfather remained serious and grim.
“They didn’t,” the old man responded. “There were many more cases of insomnia than exist today and far too often people worked too late into the night. Who knows how many lives HALI saved by simply increasing sleep and decreasing stress levels. Today’s world is so much better for both the planet and the people.”
In bed that night, Becky stared at the ceiling.
“So,” said Daniel, “your dad used the word ‘we’ a lot tonight. Do you think…”
“I don’t know what to think. And I don’t want to think.”
“Yeah, but if your dad was one of the hackers…” Daniel started again, but she cut him off.
“You mean if my dad is one of the most wanted men in history?”
“Well, but also one of the greatest heroes in history. We probably wouldn’t be alive today if those hackers hadn’t forced the world to see the light and reduce our energy consumption. Do you really think government or business leaders could have fixed the world? It had to fall on the shoulders of normal citizens to change the course of history for the better. Your dad’s a hero.”
Finally, Becky looked at him, and in the moonlight streaming through their window, he could see the glint of pride in her eye as she smiled.