One of the ubiquitous features of Earth in the Chakat Universe as depicted by Bernard Doove is the PTV (Personal Transport Vehicle). While roughly analogous to a 20th century car in that setting, it has about as much in common with one as an advanced executive jet does with a Ford Trimotor. This article will attempt to describe the PTV for authors, artists, and those readers who might be interested.
The term "PTV" can be traced to a single product that appeared during the intense reconstruction period starting during the final years of what is commonly called the Gene Wars. At the time, a number of companies were offering vehicles that attempted to address the combined issues of limited resources and new pollution awareness. When a failed military proposal for a semi-autonomous "staff" (i.e. officers') vehicle was stripped down and remarketed to commercial fleet operators as the "Personnel Transport Vehicle", the large number of requests for private purchase came as a complete surprise. But once relieved of the weight of its armor, the nascent PTV's electric drive system proved to be powerful enough to meet civilian preferences. The company responded by changing the name of their van-like creation to "Personal Transport Vehicle", creating a full range of models, and eventually licensing those designs to other manufacturers just to keep up with demands. The combination of a convenient, non-polluting power system and AI-enhanced controls (with a semi-autonomous "chauffer" option) proved wildly popular, despite the universally depressed market of the times. The company was eventually absorbed by other, larger firms, but not before those involved in the PTV's genesis had retired quite well-off (making them some of the few innovators to have ever done so).
When governments and other authorities noticed the impact of the PTV on traffic statistics (mostly in a reduction of accidents) and other reports, they began enacting laws primarily intended to enhance their effectiveness, beginning with increasing restrictions on the use of internal combustion to a nearly complete ban. Because PTVs were AI-equipped, new traffic laws were quickly evaluated and refined into the forms and systems familiar in the stories of the Chakat Universe. Those communities that initially resisted the presence of PTVs soon recognized their value and capitulated.
As can happen with languages, the term PTV has effectively replaced "car" in casual usage, despite the fact that it has a specific, legal definition. It's not unusual for people to refer to any relatively small conveyance for people as a PTV, much to the annoyance of owners of antique automobiles, motorbikes, various boats, and even small flying vehicles. (One well-known "blooper" video shows an incident during the recording of a "fluff" news story in which the reporter calls a small, scratch-built blimp a PTV, whereupon the enraged owner/operator sprayed the reporter with a pressurized air hose.)
In the "modern" Chakat Universe, PTVs are defined less by the original designs and more by industry standards and legislation. Ranging from sporty two-person (or one-person in the case of those modified to accommodate larger species) models to the largest -- a van-sized customization capable of carrying four quange in comfort -- PTVs are available in configurations for almost any need. There are, however a number of common features.
First, all PTVs operate on non-polluting (at least from the PTV) electrical power systems. These can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and even model to model, although high-capacity batteries are universally available for licensed vehicles. In addition to home stations, recharging is available at most parking facilities, typically as part of the service. (Caution is advised to avoid leaving sensitive electronic devices in an induction-charging stall if your PTV is not equipped for induction charging.) PTVs intended for longer-ranged operation through less developed areas are typically equipped with any of several "green" (ecologically clean) electrical generators with capacities of a year or more. No standards have been established for supplemental power sources, although special licensing is often required.
Second, all PTVs are equipped with a specified degree of artificial intelligence (AI). Originally intended to intercede between driver and vehicle during unsafe conditions and connect with military information networks, its use had been expanded both for safety and convenience since the earliest models. In addition to its internal functions (such as navigation, auto-drive, and maintenance monitor), a PTV will communicate with other nearby PTVs and/or local controllers, allowing for a greater "understanding" of it's environment than would be allowed by only on-board sensors and detectors. The cooperative nature of this AI interaction was one of the key developments differentiating the PTV from the automobile.
A PTV's external appearance can vary considerably, although streamlining and body strength requirements tends to keep considerable consistency between the more popular models. Internally, they usually resemble cars from the late 20th/early 21st century, although most have an element of modular construction to allow the seating to be reconfigured or replaced to accommodate a variety of body forms. Customization aside, the traditional steering wheel and pedals arrangement were retained as the most practical means of manually controlling a vehicle. The fact that these controls are not directly connected to the wheels and engine is not obvious until the AI intercedes.
Finally, anyone familiar only with an automobile's instrument cluster of dials, lights, knobs, and buttons would be initially confused by a PTV's standard dashboard display. By using a touch-enabled display surface and windshield (or "heads-up") projection instead, a PTV can modify the information it provides its operator based on current circumstances. While running auto-drive (where the AI serves as chauffer and the operator is just another passenger), the displays can even provide news, entertainment, or communications. The AI will also ignore most accidental contacts with the controls.
It is important to note that the features of a PTV (AI controls, electric drive, etc.) are not exclusive to PTVs. Many of these are incorporated in other types of vehicles and self-mobile equipment. But as such vehicles are not intended primarily for carrying small groups of people, they are rarely called PTVs. That doesn't change the fact that the cabs of most small trucks would be as familiar and easy to operate as the family PTV, at least for basic mobility.
It may sound like an oxymoron, but there are a considerable number of standard customizations available for PTVs. Unlike automobiles, which were designed exclusively for humans (there being no morphs or extraterrestrials around during their original development), PTVs are available from most manufacturers with seating, controls, and even doors and bodies intended to maximize convenience and comfort for the entire spectrum of people now on Earth. Semi-standard modular designs allow an owner to mix and match internal components, as well as reconfigure without visiting a service shop.
Most body form options are offered as packages named after the species they're intended for, such as the Chakat Special or "CS" packages. This option offers not only doors and seating with a chakat's taur-form body in mind (including a swing-away backrest so the operator doesn't have to wriggle under it or lay sideways across a bench seat), but modified accessory controls to allow operation by handpaws -- or even tails. Some manufacturers also offer a "tail-hold", but this isn't as popular an item as few chakats feel unstable enough in a PTV to want one.
There is also an entire industry devoted to individual customization of PTVs. From decorative touches to the AI programming, anything legal (and too many things illegal) to do to a PTV may be had -- for a price. Reputable customizers will even assist in registering modifications with the appropriate authorities and informing you of where local regulations would prohibit their use. Others, well -- "caveat emptor" and we'll see you when you're released.
AI and its use:
While only those involved in their development and maintenance could truly understand the inner workings of an AI ("the AI Whisperer" included), its use for a PTV is easier to explain.
Foremost of course is the safe operation of the PTV. Instead of directly controlling the various aspects of the vehicle, the operator is giving instructions to the AI which in turn operates the appropriate systems. Most of the time this process is transparent to the operator. But when conditions warrant, such as when a collision is impending, or the driver tries to tune in a sports match when he should be watching the road, the AI will intercede in an appropriate manner. Bad safety decisions by a PTV AI are so rare that the few that occur become the subject of intense interest by both the authorities and manufacturers, usually with the result of extensive tests and general AI updates.
In addition to safety, the AI can act as navigator and/or chauffer. Digital navigation aides have been available since the late 20th century, and combined with the reliability of a PTV AI, allows an operator to be little more than a passenger should they wish. The PTV's communication systems keep such navigational information very up-to-date.
When around other vehicles, a PTV will establish two-way communication with them, permitting coordinated operation and minimizing interference. This is especially true in urban or on high-speed throughway control zones (or CZs), where the operator has effectively little more control than deciding where to exit or stop. The greatly increased safety and efficiency of this process is, however, considered a more than fair trade, and the reduced need for law enforcement is a pleasant bonus.
The last most common function of a PTV's AI is vehicle maintenance. As it is tied in to every system on the vehicle, the AI can keep a constant watch on every component's performance and usually detect potential failures before they can interfere with operation. Most PTV operators are familiar with the "low charge" or "service" warnings, but only those technicians who actually maintain PTVs usually get to receive the full reports of a PTV's woes. Fortunately, the AI is also able to learn an operator's habits, adjusting operation to minimize any negative effects.
While auto-drive is the most commonly unused feature on a standard PTV, very few have it actually disabled. Most disabled auto-drives are found in remote, sparsely populated areas where the owner seeks a level of personal freedom in excess of what is tolerable in more populous locations. As these "dumb PTVs" rarely if ever enter CZs, this is not usually considered an important issue.
As for other modifications, such as alternate power or fuel systems and adjusted AI parameters, legality is a matter of local preference. Cosmetic and minor modifications rarely need more than registration with whatever authority tracks vehicles, typically for no additional fee. More significant features such as alternate drives or any alteration of the AI will require a more involved process, including providing proof of need and safety of the modification. Such "ModTVs" are almost always required to be clearly identified as a variant by sticker, paint job, or even audio announcement.
The second most common modification (after doors and species packages), and one offered as a standard option by most manufacturers, is a supplemental power source. Intended for longer-range travel through areas that may not have recharge service, these use some form of power storage with a higher capacity (and density) than standard. There are a variety of solutions, none of which appear to be universally accepted, all of which supply electricity to the existing drive system. Occasionally someone proposes a non-electric drive, but these, if actually approved, are unpopular as they have never improved on the PTV drives available at the time.
Modification to the passenger compartment of a PTV typically take one of two forms - aesthetic or species-specific. Aesthetic modifications, almost always superficial, are as varied as PTV owners. Species-specific modifications, however, take advantage of the common modular design of passenger fittings.
Luxury modifications are also available, but someone used to the offerings of automobile manufacturers in the early 21st century would be surprised by the small number of requests for them. Two of the more popular luxuries are AI enhancements, "full voice" and "full chauffer". Full voice gives the PTV the ability to speak with its passengers conversationally, and therefore includes a significant degree of personality simulation. Full chauffer (which almost always includes full voice) enhances the system by allowing the PTV to learn its owner's preferences and even anticipate requests. Feature recognition is also included, and a full chauffer PTV will typically oppose any attempt to enter it without permission but will go so far as to open and close its doors for its owner.
One customization that is becoming increasingly popular is the "no driver" seating arrangement. By relegating vehicle operation completely to the AI and the fact that accidents and sudden maneuvers are effectively eliminated, the interior of the PTV can dispense with normal operator controls and all those inside can be considered merely passengers. Seating can then be arranged for the mutual enjoyment of those inside, with all passengers facing a central spot being most popular. A more recent version - the "meeting room" - caters to businessmen who prefer to travel personally rather than telecommute.
The PTV in society:
In combination with mass transit, the PTV has effectively transformed ground travel in the Chakat Universe. Most people think nothing of climbing into one, stating (or tapping in) a destination, and letting the vehicle get them there. But there's a sizeable number of people who hearken back to the days of the automobile by leaving the auto-drive features off most of the time. This is, in fact, the most commonly unused feature of a PTV.
There are, however, areas where so-called "manual" control is effectively prohibited without special permits. These include high-speed corridors (a refinement of the 20th century expressway) and most dense urban areas. In these "control zones" or "CZs", operator control is usually limited to destination selection and immediate requests (such as "take the next exit", "stop here", or "drive down Delancy"). Routing is managed by a coordinated network of AIs, with on-board AIs operating the PTV itself. This arrangement allows maximum use of roadways with minimum congestion. Despite the occasional complaint about an individual receiving (or not receiving) a specific route or being inconvenienced by an emergency, this system has higher approval and safety ratings than any transportation system in history.
Control zones universally have one hard and fast rule -- you cannot use manual controls except under specific, tightly regulated conditions. Except for emergencies such as AI failures (an extreme rarity considering the high level of redundancy and reliability required of them), this typically involves expensive licensing and permits after thorough tests and background checks. Because of the pervasive nature of the AI control system, those vehicles that get their auto-drives disabled are quickly noticed, located, and detained for public safety.
One of the more interesting effects the PTV has had on society is the reversal of the "car culture", although many authorities debate the PTV's contribution to the phenomenon. In the 20th century, particularly in the United States, the availability of land and personal vehicles prompted a migration from cities to suburbs. The automobile, originally available only to the wealthy, became a status symbol, and people devoted resources to them heavily. After the Gene Wars, limited resources and the increase of recycling made this impossible. The introduction of the PTV, the availability of environmentally-friendly mass transit in habitable areas, and the long process of land recovery as well as the establishment of extensive and protected wilderness areas completed the reversal. To most people, the PTV is not a status symbol, merely a valuable and convenient tool for those that need one.
More specifically, use of an urban PPV/mass transit system (described in more detail later) is actually more convenient and economic to the typical urban dweller than private ownership. As a consequence, fewer and fewer urban dwellings are being constructed with space for vehicle parking. There is also a tendency among more biased city dwellers to view a PTV owner as something of a "country bumpkin". Peer pressure therefore reinforces an unofficial limit on PTV ownership.
Some of the effects the introduction of the PTV had on society aren't as obvious. Of these, the differences in law enforcement between the late 20th century and the era of the Chakat Universe is considered the greatest.
First, of course, is the de-emphasis on traffic enforcement. Particularly in CZs, routine traffic patrols have effectively ceased to exist. In fact, with AIs limiting unsafe operation, most local traffic laws have been removed from the books, replaced with requirements for keeping PTVs in good operating order and tied to the CZ.
Control Zones have also proven a boon to other areas of law enforcement. PTVs used for illegal activities have their AIs interrogated when seized, and the information they retain about where they've gone and what they've endured provide invaluable evidence. Overt violence within a PTV is identified by the AI as at least distress, prompting the AI to seek immediate assistance and usually avoiding the worst consequences. Vehicle theft is nearly impossible when the vehicle can respond on its own (besides which they aren't valued as highly, as already mentioned). And careless smugglers are distressed to be delivered to law enforcement centers should their illicit cargos be detectable by the various sensors aboard (particularly the chemical detectors used to spot leaks and overheating).
The effects have been an overall decrease in the requirements of both police and other emergency services for dealing with poor drivers and accidents, while at the same time being able to devote more resources to other areas.
In the Movies:
Fans of late 20th century action movies bemoan one change the PTV has unquestionably produced - the near extinction of the car chase. Originally a symptom of the "car culture", the 20th centaury car chase escalated to include more and increasingly exotic vehicles, as well as a number of staple events (the baby carriage, the fruit/news stand, the jump, etc.). When the public eventually began developing a taste for action movies again after the Gene Wars, movie makers discovered most of their attempts at staging car chases were completely unrealistic for their new world.
The biggest reason for this became known in the industry as "the hornets' nest effect." This was due to an early incident where a criminal attempted to escape using a non-AI vehicle within a Control Zone. The CZ in question had at its disposal a number of PTVs scheduled for recycling that were still operational. When the criminal was pulled from his trapped and disabled vehicle, he compared the experience of being adroitly herded and eventually pinned by a swarm of unmanned PTVs to walking into a nest of angry hornets. The movie based on this incident became wildly popular, and spawned new staples of the increasingly rare car chase, mostly based on a non-AI vehicle being outmaneuvered by PTVs both with and without CZ coordination.
Instead, movie chase scenes moved to other venues, such as air, sea, and wilderness areas. Foot chases in urban areas are also offered, but most people find violence where they live to be very disturbing and as most of the population lives in urban areas, such scenes are rare.
More common is the fictional "high level" AI offered as a character. Although CZs with personality simulation are exceedingly rare, they are commonly used in "cop shows" for their entertainment value. And in nearly perfect counterpoint to the disappearance of "car culture", several ideas borrowed from 20th century entertainment found new popularity by presenting them as PTVs with fictionally advanced AIs, including Herbie, KITT, and strangely enough "My Mother the Car". One of the more modern offerings borrowed only the title - "Car 54, Where Are You?" - recreating it as a "cop show" drama where the titular vehicle was a "brilliant" police PTV partnered with a changing series of human and/or morph officers.
Other than the above, PTVs are most commonly seen in entertainment in the same roles they have in real life - useful but not terribly significant tools.
With most of the population living in urban areas, and those having the lowest rate of PTV ownership, how do most people get around? There's mass transit, of course, and few cities aren't pedestrian-friendly. But between the two is the Public PTV, also known as a "PPV", "Peevee", or "Peetee" (for "Public Transport"), and perhaps the first real innovations in mass transit since the Gene Wars. In fact, many PPV systems predated the creation of control zones.
A refugee from the 20th century might dismiss the PPV as a glorified taxicab, but anyone who's ever used one would disagree. The PPV takes full advantage of a PTV in a control zone, shuttling passengers between all the various locations in a city that don't have enough traffic to warrant connections using a higher-volume form of mass transit. PPV systems are always integrated with available mass transit for ease of transfer, and few communities bill them separately (assuming they aren't wholly community funded). And the additional programming required of a PPV or supplied by the CZ allow PPVs to respond efficiently to a much wider variety of situations than most PTVs, including medical emergencies, attempted vandalism and theft, lost items, and general cleanliness for the next passenger.
This is not to say that traditional taxi and limousine services are unavailable, only that their existence and size depend on the community. Person-operated taxis are more common as the presence of mass transit diminishes, and are actually common on the perimiter of CZs. And despite the limited market and licensing demands, a professional chauffer can usually find an employer in a large city.
One unusual variation of the PPV is the "tourist" service. Many cities historically developed special reputations for their taxi services (such as the London cabbie). Private tourist services recreate these historical experiences using specially configured PTVs. Incorporating a variation of "full chauffer" and coordinated by an AI not part of the control zone (but by law subordinate to it), these PPVs not only recreate the appearance of antique taxis, but simulate the expected conversations and relative driving skills. (Tokyo tourist PPVs are to be avoided by the faint-of-heart, as they simulate the early days of their lineage when they were called "kamikazes".)
In a few places, where the driver was a more important part of the experience, some private PPV operators go so far as to hire performers as "drivers". Of special note is the Checker Cab Company of New York City, who not only deploy PPVs designed to simulate an automobile in poor operating condition (including gasoline exhaust and less savory odors inside), their live drivers - who are required to speak with nearly unintelligible accents while on duty - are all fully licensed vehicle operators complete with NYC taxi driver permits! ("Unleashed" rides where the NYC CZ participates as only a hidden advisor and backup can be arranged for an additional fee.)
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