By Parson Thru
Detective Inspector Steve Farmer slammed his hand down on the desk.
“Jesus, Steve! You’re gonna have a widow and two orphans on your conscience if you keep doing that.”
“Sorry, mate. The Vehicle Safety Group have just blown me out of the water. Listen to this: ‘and it is considered entirely unfeasible for a car in autonomous mode to deviate from its given parameters’. They say there’s no way it could have changed speed and direction to mow him down. Fuck!”
“The journalist case?”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I’ll go and see the journalist.”
DI Farmer picked up his mobile and called PC Fran Ginelli.
“Hi Fran. Can you speak? Listen, the VSG have just rubbished the idea that Jason McMahon’s car could have accelerated and hit John Chine without driver input. Can you bring him in for an interview?… No, nothing formal beyond Due Care and Attention. Ok, mate? I’m going to visit John. Thanks.”
When DI Farmer arrived on the ward, the curtains were around John’s bed. He spoke to a nurse in the office.
“Everything ok with John?”
“Are you the policeman?” she asked.
DI Farmer took his wallet out and showed the warrant card.
“The physio’s in with him. It’s quite painful. He’ll be tired. Would you like a coffee?”
“I’d love one, thanks. Black, no sugar.”
The nurse went off to the kitchen. DI Farmer took out his phone. There was an email from a private mailbox. He opened it.
It simply read “Hi, this might help.” Beneath the text was row upon row of hyperlinks. He checked the sender’s address. He didn’t recognise it. He clicked the first link. It was a PDF document. He clicked “Yes” at the download prompt.
The document looked like a technical report. It was marked COMMERCIAL - CONFIDENTIAL. Much of the text was redacted.
He opened another. It was the same. And another. He sat down to read the first one. The nurse returned with the coffee.
“Thanks.” he looked up. “I really need that.”
He continued reading. “Known vulnerabilities in [Redacted] autonomous vehicle control firmware: report on likely risks and mitigation.”
He read on.
He switched to Contacts and dialled PC Ginelli.
“Fran? It’s DI Farmer. Have you got Jason McMahon? Yeah? Ok, look. Go over what we already have, ask him to add anything else he remembers and sign the statement again. Let him go and thank him for his time. I think we’ve got ourselves a whistle-blower in the VSG.”
He finished his coffee.
“Thanks for that. It was perfect. Where’s the sink?”
“Oh, just leave the cup there. I’ll wash it.”
“Thank you.” He looked across the ward. “Ah! John’s curtains are open. Only a chat. Nothing serious.”
DI Farmer stood at the end of John’s bed.
John’s eyes were screwed tight shut. The physiotherapy had been agonising. The therapist had told him that he was going to be spending more time out of bed because he’d developed bed-sores. Everything seemed too much. He looked at the man standing down by his feet.
“Afternoon John. It’s Steve Farmer. Do you remember me?”
“I think so. You’re not a surgeon. You didn’t run me over. You might be a policeman.”
“I am. DI Farmer. Do you remember we talked about careers? Why we went into them?”
John nodded. “Yes. Sounds familiar.”
“John, I’m trying to get to the bottom of whether McMahon’s car could have been driven at you in autonomous mode.”
“I don't see why not. The car's a device. Software - firmware controls how it behaves. Anyone with the right skills and access can modify that.”
“Yes. There’s plenty of stuff on the Internet about vehicle firmware vulnerabilities if you know where to look. The corporates close it down as quickly as they can. Legally, with injunctions, because it’s usually been leaked or stolen.”
“I wasn’t aware of that.”
“There’s nothing officially published. The authorities are hand in glove with business and investors. That’s why I’m in here.”
“Oh, Detective Inspector, you’ll have me locked up. Maybe I really am paranoid. Maybe not.”
“Driverless cars. It’s a subterfuge. But it’s also the proving ground for the technology. The business case is socially acceptable – eradicate human error as a cause of millions of deaths and injuries, take away the stress of hours wasted behind the wheel in traffic jams. But the real business case is the eradication of the payroll. Think taxis, buses, delivery jobs, trunking. Every driving job.”
“That’s just driving. Throw in AI, automated telephony, routine decision-making, customer service, robotics. It’s the coming gold-rush.”
“I read a couple of your articles.”
“I’m surprised you found them.”
“It wasn’t easy. I thought they were a bit off the scale.”
“It’s a bit esoteric. The mainstream public haven’t really caught on yet. Just a few crazies like me who the corporates and their political and media lackeys brand Luddites. Joe Public won’t see it until it’s all too late.”
DI Farmer thought about the stymie that the Vehicle Safety Group had placed in the way of the investigation. He wondered how high that had gone.
“John, I’m going to have to go back to base and re-think where we are with this. I’m feeling out of my depth.”
“Oh, we’re all out of our depth, Detective Inspector. Believe me.”
John laid back on his pillow.
“I’m really sorry. I need to sleep.”
An hour later, DI Farmer was back in his office at the station. He wasn’t sure where to start. Who could he speak to? He wondered how much to share with PC Ginelli.
In the same moment, his phone rang. It was PC Ginelli.
“Boss? I’ve just had a call from the hospital. Mr. Chine’s suffered a brain haemorrhage. They’re saying there’s no brain activity. His mother’s on her way, they’re going to ask her permission to withdraw treatment.”
“I’m going up there now.”
“Come and collect me, Fran. This changes everything.”