One of my favorite parts of being a writer is trying to come up with what’s next.
Something happens. You have to decide what comes next. It sound simple, but it’s extremely important. If “what happens next” isn’t believable, a reader won’t buy into your story. They’ll lose interest.
This idea of “What’s Next” can play out in small scales or large. You have a girl kiss a boy. What happens next? How does the boy react? The girl? What about the boy who has a crush on the girl and finds out the next morning? A single event causes ripples. How your characters react gives us insight into who they are.
“What’s next” also plays out in large scales. This is particularly true in speculative fiction. For me, that is when things get really interesting. Like . . . stay-awake-at-night-can’t-shut-off-my-brain interesting.
Let’s take an example. You’ve probably all heard that driverless cars are coming, perhaps as early as 2020. If I’m writing a book that takes place five or ten years in the future (I am), how would society be altered by this change? I could just have things be exactly like they are today, only instead of getting behind the wheel, you get in the back seat. But to me, that doesn’t feel real. Let’s explore what might happen as driverless cars become a reality.
We begin with a simple assumption. Driverless cars work. They’re much safer than letting people drive (Google has logged 700,000 miles without an accident). So . . . what’s next?
Well, first of all, we have to ask the question, do we outlaw human driving? In 2013 there were almost 33,000 deaths due to motor vehicles. About a third of those were related to drunk driving. We’ve outlawed drunk driving in an attempt to lower the fatality rate, so doesn’t it seem logical that there would be some, perhaps even many, who would say we should outlaw humans driving?
This changes my character getting in the back seat. Does he do it with a bit of bitterness? Does hi miss the days when he could drive himself?
Even if the government hasn’t forced people to stop driving, there is another big impact we’d see. Think of a long-haul truck driver. Go onto any interstate, and you won’t have to wait long before you see a semi. There are over three million truck drivers in the US, and they are the most expensive “cost” to transporting goods. A tractor-trailer will run about a hundred thousand dollars, but you’ll get years of service out of it. A truck driver makes about $40k a year. So if you pay to move goods from one point to another, and suddenly you didn’t have to pay for a driver, you’ve just reduced expenses tremendously.
When the driverless cars come, there will be millions of people suddenly without a job. Truck drivers, taxi drivers, limo drivers, UPS drivers, Fed-Ex drivers, postal carriers, couriers, and more. An entire sector of business suddenly upended because there are driverless cars.
Maybe our character is getting into the back of his driverless car because he’s headed to the unemployment office.
Uber has been getting a ton of press recently. Uber connects people who need rides, with people who want to give rides, and they’re doing it much cheaper than traditional methods such as taxis. What if Uber, or Google for that matter, had a fleet of driverless cars? What if they ran their network of cars such that when you wanted a car, there was a car nearby? Imagine, you want to go to the store. You click a button on your phone and within a minute there is a car waiting for you. The car takes you to the store, you do your shopping, and when you’re done, you press the button again and another car is waiting to take you home. Kind of nice, right? What if it did it for the low, low price of gas, plus an extra dollar or two for wear and tear on the car?
Our personal cars spend most of their time sitting. They are a very poor investment. It’s very convenient to have them, but they cost us a lot. $350 for a car payment. $100 for insurance. $150 in gas. Repairs. Washing and vacuuming them. Buying fuzzy dice and vinyl stickers. An average family spends $8,000 a year on their cars.
What if, using Uber or Google Rideshare, you suddenly found yourself having a car whenever you wanted, but only having to pay about $100 a month? Or take it one step further . . . you’re on your way to the store. Google can sell ads that run on video monters so suddenly the ride is free. Would you ditch your car
We’ve just introduced another bombshell into the economy. Very few people own cars anymore. Instead, fleets are purchased and maintained by large companies such as Uber and Google Rideshare.
Think of all the businesses and companies that have been built because computers went from being something only a large business owned, to something that every family owned. It’s had a HUGE positive impact on the economy. Well, now we’re going backward, only with cars. We’re taking away almost all aspects of the economy related with consumer automobile ownership.
Car dealerships . . . gone (good riddance). Auto mechanic shops, gone, replaced by corporate motor pools. Auto-parts stores, gone. Auto-insurance agents, gone. Gas stations, mostly gone. Convenience stores, mostly gone. Some sectors are totally obliterated, while others are either indirectly affected. Think of the auto-makers themselves. What happens when the demand for cars drops by eighty or ninety percent?
Go to the automobile section of your local super-store, and imagine all of that gone. All those that create those goods, ship those goods, sell those goods . . . all gone. Once again, we see a HUGE impact to the local economy.
There is another issue that we mentioned only in passing, but again, has a profound effect. Parking. The car that dropped us off at the store is not the same one that picked us up. Why would a car sit in the parking lot of the grocery store while you spent twenty minutes buying your food? It could pick up and drop off three other people in that time. Algorithms have the timing down to seconds, and there is no need to have a parking lot in the middle of town for all of these sitting cars. Cars drop off, cars pick up. Cars do not park.
Think of the nearest city. Think of the prime Real Estate. Land can be worth millions of dollars in the middle of a city. Now think of how much is used for parking lots. Suddenly all of that is unnecessary. You’ve just doubled the amount of land you have in cities because you don’t have to worry about parking. The price of land plummets. Again, the economy is affected.
Google and Uber want to lower costs. They also want to be good corporate and global citizens. When they buy their fleet of cars, they do not buy internal combustion engines. Instead, they have large solar farms that power electric cars. Within a few short years (because we outlawed human driving), we’ve almost eliminated pollution from coming from driving cars.
Who knows? There are so many different areas that are impacted. What percentage of ER visits is automobile-accident related? Is the health industry (ER, doctors, physical therapy) negatively affected? What about litigation? Will we see less litigation over auto accidents? Or will we see more because when there is an accident, the liable party is a huge company with deep pockets? What about police? Some estimates say that driverless cars will put over 50% of our cops out of work.Driverless cars always follow the law. No more citations. No more revenue from tickets.
And on and on and on.
If you can’t tell, for me, the question of “What’s Next” is a fun one. It’s impossible to predict everything with certainty. I have no ideas what impact driverless cars will really have on our lives, but I’m pretty sure there will some doozies. Driverless cars may create more jobs than we lose. Or it may not. Driverless cars will almost certainly save more lives.
The fun part of telling a story is making your reader think. Showing them something they’ve never seen before. A world with driverless cars that functions like our current one is boring. Your readers deserve more. A well-thought-out world will engage your reader more because it is believable. They will be more interested and engaged in the story you’re crafting.
So . . . what’s next?