Great leaps in technology are being made every day in the 21st century. Steve Jobs was one of the first visionaries to fully realise the value of the touchscreen in people’s lives, and thus the modern smartphone was born. The current trend in technology is the pursuit of autonomy and integrated lifestyles. Entire households controlled by a computer, cars that can drive themselves – the achievement of these aims, which were hitherto limited to the realm of science fiction, is what some of the best minds of our time are obsessed with. The following bit of speculative fiction imagines what life will be like for us in 2050, when touchscreen, autonomous, and integrated technologies will have inevitably merged into a simultaneously complex and simplified whole. I may be entirely wrong in imagining that some of the things I’ve described in this essay will come to pass, but it is still interesting to imagine what life will be like in the electric future 40 years from now. We may never, ever have flying cars, but I do believe that the technologies mentioned in this essay are within the realm of possibility (indeed, some of them exist even now, if only in very nascent stages). It is my hope that we will be able to take advantage of them sooner rather than later.
I am roused from my sleep by the smooth jazz sounds of ‘Daybreak’ by Michael Haggins. I look at my alarm clock; it’s 10 AM on Saturday, July 9, 2050. Now that the rhythmic sounds of my breathing have stopped, the alarm automatically switches itself off and the opaque windows of my bedroom slowly turn translucent and eventually transparent, letting in the blazing sunlight. A tiny, almost invisible speaker attached to one of the corners of the windows proclaims, ‘Good morning. The temperature outside is 28 degrees Celsius. The sky is clear; there is no chance of showers. Have a pleasant day’.
I yawn widely and head to the bathroom. The pressure-sensitive pad under the mat outside the bathroom door automatically turns on the bathroom light. I stand in front of the washbasin and thrust my hands under the tap. The electronic sensor identifies my prints and turns on the water flow. The flow will last for 30 seconds, the time I need to wash my hands and face. The electronic sensor monitors my daily usage and adjusts the volume and timing of the flow accordingly to ensure minimum wastage of water. I pick up my toothbrush and toothpaste from their holders and start brushing. Once I’m done, I reach for the glass of water next to the basin. As soon as I picked up the toothbrush, the circular steel stand under the glass of water started heating up the water to my desired temperature. I rinse my mouth and spit into the basin; a jet of water shoots out of the tap and cleans up the basin.
I head to the bathtub, and another pressure-sensitive pad under the carpet placed just outside the tub senses my presence and opens the transparent partition that separates the tub from the rest of the bathroom. I step into the tub, and the partition closes and turns opaque. A jet of water shoots out of the shower head. I reach for the alcove where I keep the soap. I lift the bar of soap, and the water is slowly turned off. I place the bar back, and the water is turned on again. To avoid wastage, the water will turn off permanently in 15 minutes (unless I open the sealed control panel and use the override command), and so I hurry to finish my shower.
Ten minutes later, I step out of the bathroom and head to the cupboard to dress. Then, I head to the kitchen. As I step in, the opaque windows become transparent. The placement of the windows has been optimised to let in maximum daylight and reduce dependence on electric lights in the daytime. I head to the massive integrated kitchen unit. No appliances in the kitchen depend on gas. The electric stove is a sleek, black-coloured instrument that resembles the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but positioned horizontally rather than perpendicularly. I touch a square screen on the wall above the stove, and four hobs instantly become visible on the surface of the stove. A digital readout appears on the square screen that displays the status of each hob. All the hobs are currently inactive. I touch the readout for Hobs 1 and 2, and the red ‘Inactive’ displays for both hobs immediately change to green ‘Active’ ones. I touch the readout for Hob 1 and select ‘Scrambled eggs’ from the dropdown menu that appears. I select ‘Tea’ for Hob 2. I head to the refrigerator. A small window at the centre of the fridge automatically opens at my approach. Two eggs are waiting inside. I retrieve them and head back to the stove. I crack the eggs open and empty the contents into a shallow pan greased with a little oil, which I place on Hob 1. I then take a bowl and add water and tea powder to it. I place the bowl on Hob 2. The digital readout changes to read ‘Cooking’ for Hob 1 and ‘Boiling’ for Hob 2. I head to the kitchen table and sit down. I tap twice on the table, and the surface turns into a digital display. From the apps, I select ‘Newspaper’. I begin to read as my breakfast is being prepared. If anything were to go wrong with the eggs or the tea, the stove would sound an alarm. However, things go smoothly, and after 10 minutes, I hear a ‘ding’ sound that tells me that the breakfast is ready. I plate everything up and eat as I read. Once done, I put the dishes in the dishwasher, which has been optimised to treat and re-use waste water from the air conditioning and washing machine systems to do the washing.
I need to head to Mumbai to meet a friend for lunch. I raise my arm and swipe left on my wristwatch. The digital time display disappears and is replaced with an app menu. From the menu, I select ‘My Car’ and press down on it. The app opens up and I’m presented with several options. I press down on ‘Summon’. My parking garage is a separate one-storey structure located a few metres away from my house. Inside the garage, my electric car hums to life. The garage door opens, and the car slowly rolls out, its electronic sensors constantly scanning for objects in all four directions to avoid a collision. The car smoothly rolls out of the garage and makes it away to the front door of my house, where it comes to a stop. The car AC is already at work, pre-cooling the car to my preferred temperature.
I step out of the house and close the door behind me. I press down on a touch panel embedded into the door, which turns on at once. I select ‘Low Power Mode’ and ‘Anti-theft Alarm On’. The windows all around the house start to turn opaque. The door locks itself, and the image of a lock appears on the panel. The anti-theft alarm is now active. The sun is shining brightly off the roof of the house. The ‘roof’ is comprised entirely of solar panels. Each roof shingle is a compact panel that stores massive amounts of solar energy. The battery storage unit is at the back of the house and is about the size of a small garden shed. The house is almost entirely solar powered. Excess energy is fed back to the grid, for which the government compensates me in the form of green credits, which entitle me to discounts on all purchases I make – from groceries to flight tickets.
I head to my car, which senses my presence through my watch. The retractable handles on the car doors pop out. The car only has two doors, and these are hinged at the roof. The doors slowly open to grant me entry into the car. The car is silver in colour and is shaped like a flattened computer mouse. The top of the car has a bunch of extremely lightweight solar panels that charge the car as it is driving. The panels do not provide much energy – only about 5% – but that is enough to power some of the electronics in the car. Inside, the car has six seats, all of which surround a circular glass table. The seats can be made to spin around to face the windows. Only the driver’s seat does not turn to face the window. Instead, it turns and faces the dashboard, or rather, the control panel. The only analogue devices on the control panel are the steering wheel and Neutral, Drive, and Reverse buttons. These devices are required by law to be present in the car, but they are hardly ever used because the car can be controlled from the touchscreen control panel itself. The accelerator and brake are located in the expected position under the steering wheel, but they are covered by a panel and are operated by the car itself. The car is fully autonomous, and so the driver only needs to take control under exceptional circumstances. I get into the driver’s seat and press down on the glass table, which replicates the control panel on the dashboard. I can expand or reduce the size of the panel as I see fit. I check the available range by pressing down on the ‘Range’ option. The car has half of its range available, that is, 600 km. Next, I press down on the ‘Destination’ and ‘Voice Command’ options. There is a loud beep, and I say, very clearly, ‘--- Restaurant, Colaba, Mumbai’. An automated voice responds, ‘Confirmed. Welcome, Abhishek. Please strap on your seatbelt. This journey will take two hours. The starting point is Badlapur, Maharashtra, and the starting time is 11 AM. Estimated time of arrival is 1 PM. Light traffic is expected on the way. I wish you a pleasant journey’. I strap myself in, and the car moves off.
The car is totally silent. The fully insulated cabin shuts out all sounds, including wind and tyre noise. If I want, I can turn the windows opaque and reproduce the control panel on the windows instead of the table. There are many options available in the control panel. There are the usual options, such as suspension adjustment and sunroof controls, but there are other also options such as the ability to watch films, play videogames, and surf the internet. An option called ‘Naptime’ turns the windows black and joins three seats together to form two small beds. Optional soothing music plays on the speakers. Larger, more expensive cars have even more options, along with supplements like mini-refrigerators and microwave ovens.
The car is now smoothly trundling along the national highway. The highway is divided into multiple lanes. Most of the lanes are meant for autonomous cars. Two lanes are devoted to cars actually driven by human drivers. All the cars are electric. The use of petrol/diesel/CNG cars has been all but eliminated. Attempting to cross over to the wrong lane is a serious criminal offence that is punished with a fine, licence cancellation, and/or jail time. Given the severity of the punishment, infractions tend to be very few, and the number of motor accidents has been reduced to a tenth of what it used to be 40 years ago. The cars with human drivers are still restricted to a speed limit of 120 km/h, but autonomous cars are allowed to go up to 500 km/h. Cars flash by at amazing speeds.
There are also buses on the highway. The buses are autonomous as well. They are programmed to stop at scheduled destinations on their routes. The buses are remotely monitored from control rooms. All bus passengers are required to carry travel cards. After they enter the bus and take their seats, they must swipe their cards and enter their destinations into the control panel embedded into the seat directly in front of them. The cards can periodically be filled up with travel miles via internet banking.
After 45 minutes of driving, my car enters Mumbai. In the city, there are more taxis on the road than private cars. Ever since all public transport became autonomous and electric, people have preferred to travel as little as possible by private transport, as public transport is cheaper and more efficient. Taxis can be summoned to one’s doorstep through apps. One simply enters their destination and pays the fare upfront through the app, and the taxi shows up to take them away.
The pavements are abuzz with the hustle and bustle of people going about their daily business. Jaywalking has been banned and strictly punished since the adoption of autonomous cars. The revised motor rules clearly differentiate between the street and the pavement; the former is meant for cars and the latter for pedestrians. Anyone who breaks the rules and attempts to jaywalk does so at his or her peril. Again, actual infractions are few. People stick to the sidewalks and cross the road only at zebra crossings and signals. The owners of cars that block a zebra crossing are strictly penalized.
As my car heads towards its destination, I get a pop-up on my control panel that points me to a nearby charging station. The car is offering to drop me off and head to the station. I press ‘OK’ on the pop-up. The car arrives at the restaurant at precisely 1 PM, and I step out. The car moves off. It heads to the charging station. The station is a converted multi-storey car park. My car enters the station and starts looking for an empty parking spot. It soon spots one and heads towards it just as another car heads in the same direction. A few metres before the cars collide, their individual sensors pick up each other’s presence, and the cars slow down instantly. The second car reverses itself so that my car can ease into the parking spot, and then it quickly rolls away. Once my car is in the parking spot, a small panel at the rear of the car, halfway between the window and the wheel arch, automatically opens. The charging cable, which resembles a large, coiled serpent, senses the open charging port and slowly uncoils itself. It makes its way towards the charging port, and with a barely audible click, it locks into place. A small, round light next the port, about the size of a pea, glows green. The vehicle is now charging. The charging cable is connected to a digital display mounted on a stand, which reads ‘Battery Charging. 15 Minutes to Complete’. Above this text is a battery icon. The text inside the icon reads ‘41% Charged. Range: 500 km’. The percentage rapidly climbs: 42%, 43% …