A time in the not-too-distant future...? Aw, man. Of all the days, he thought. From the sudden thumpita-thump as he rounded a sharp turn, he could tell his left rear tire was going flat.
That's great. Just great. Got a day full of sales calls. Now what?
The left-rear tire icon on the dashboard monitor flashed menacingly. So Fred punched at the ``damage control'' button.
Geez...they can make a 300,000-mile tire, but they still can't find a way to keep ``gators'' off the highway.
He remembered the sound, when that big, long serpent-shaped one he'd so deftly tried to avoid, jumped up and took a big bite out of his tire.
On the road all day. Little Bobby's band concert tonight. Don't dare miss that tragicomedy. Nothing like listening to 40 seven- and eight-year-olds trying to make like the Boston Pops as they squeak and wheez their way through the William Tell Overture. Earplugs, anyone?
And if I don't finalize that business deal today.... The ``Old Man,'' as Fred affectionately called his boss—who's 10 years younger and doesn't really appreciate the honorary title—will simply stroke out.
The dashboard monitor continued to flash. Air pressure dropping...28...19...11...zero.
He imagined a little guy deep inside the tire nervously scanning the carcass for punctures. ``I'm giving 'er all I've got but I don't think we can save 'er this time, captain,'' he'd bleakly call back.
The display indicated a blowout showing a two-inch piece of steel sticking half out of the sidewall.
Not a pretty sight.
Probably have to replace the tire.
Thank goodness for run-flats, Fred thought. He could probably drive another 500 or 600 miles on this baby, if need be. After all, the guy at the mail-order tire place kept crowing,``You'll never have to replace these.''
But with all those calls to make today, better not chance it.
These tires are great when you get a flat. But having to pay almost 350 bucks for a replacement? Weren't they supposed to come down in price as they became standard equipment? His inner voice screamed ``conspiracy,'' but it was drowned out by darker thoughts of losing time waiting around for an expensive tire change.
Then the other three tires, sensing their ``brother's'' pain, felt they had to chime in, as well.
``I'm feeling low.'' ``Yeah, me too.''
That's what happens when you give 'em a brain, Fred snickered. Smart tires. Yeah, right.
He eased his two-seater into the IVHS (Intelligent Vehicle Highway System) lane, locked onto the beam, hit the remote control switch, then slunk back in the bucket seat. Turning on the lumbar massager, he took his hands from the wheel. Now we're truckin' baby.
It never ceased to amaze him. The car slipped into cruise mode with a slight surge of power, then began following the rhythmic IVHS pattern—a relentless 85 mph, up and down hills, around bends in the road.
He rummaged around for the morning paper although he could have logged on to it on the dashboard monitor. But it was more challenging to leaf through the printed version. Boy, he still loved getting ink on his fingers.
Finding the sports pages, he peered at the tire ads with all their fine-print sizes and prices that seemed like hundreds of ant droppings.
Some things never change.
``Joe's Tires—four for forty,'' one blared. Another screeched: ``Come on in. We'll pump you up.''
His brain grew numb. Eyes strained to make out tiny print. Oh, the heck with it.
Fred activated the vehicle's navigation device and typed in the ``map'' prompt. He switched over to voice mode, tucked the small keyboard back into its compartment, then slowly said, ``Find: tire.''
``Why are you tired?'' the computer guide asked, feigning concern.
``Yeah. As if you really cared,'' he shot back.
``Are you angry with me?''
``No. Tire. T-i-r-e,'' he restated.
Ah, ``Hal,'' that uppity, monstrous computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey, still lives. Sometimes Fred even called his carputer ``Hal.'' Really ticked it off.
A screen listing names and location coordinates of businesses with the name ``tire'' in them quickly appeared, along with alternatives for automotive service and those likely doing tire repairs.
Hmm...``True-blue Tire and Coffee Emporium.'' Naw, the java there's pretty horrendous.
``Mack's—Your One-Stop Tire Shoppe.'' Oh, sure. One stop, if that's all you have to do all day.
Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing came to mind: ``There was never a philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently,'' The Bard had written. So true.
Ever since the tire industry adopted the ``out in five minutes—or your tires are free'' service standard, there was nothing worse than having to wait any longer than that for a tire change. He'd rather go to the dentist. Well...maybe not.
Here's one. ``Billy-Bob's Robotic Tire & Auto Service.''
Had a couple good experiences with this place. Real quick service. Free lube with every tire purchase—ya can't get that by mail.
And you can actually carry on a somewhat intelligent conversation with the service droids working at the place. That is, as long as the topic is the latest in the 20-installment ``Star Wars'' movies: ``Escape from the Planet of the Droids,'' starring Charlton Heston as Moses-2-D2.
Fred recited the coordinates for Billy-Bob's into the nav system speaker. The car immediately lurched, then pulled to the berm.
``You can't get there from here, idiot,'' the voice snapped as a quadruple-tandem truck flew by, three or four gators unravelling and slapping to the pavement in front of Fred's car.
``Geez,'' he muttered.
``Shall I re-compute?''
``You betcha,'' Fred replied in his best Minnesotan drawl.
``I do not accept bets,'' the voice snapped again.
``Yes, re-compute.'' Now he was angry.
An on-screen map appeared with routes to Billy-Bob's highlighted along with suggested alternate routes to avoid the morning rush and road construction detours.
``Do you wish to drive, or shall I take you there?'' the system intoned.
``I'll drive,'' Fred said. ``Set up an appointment for me. Make sure you access my car's tire monitoring system and let the dealership know the damage, the reason for my visit, my estimated time of arrival.''
In a split second he heard the modem dial up Billy-Bob's remote access computer. Logging on to his car via satellite, the dealership's computer began a ``rolling diagnostic'' of the vehicle, methodically checking each computerized component for glitches or fault codes. An almost melodic hum droned as each circuit board chirped out data.
``Urgent! Urgent!'' flashed to alert him that two cylinders were misfiring, the car's oil was a tad dirty and its battery could stand recharging. Oh, and when was the last time this buggy was washed? Paint sensors indicate it's been at least a month.
He winced. ``In for a penny....''
You know, things were a lot simpler when I had my '64 Dodge Dart. Now there was a car.
Already he was dreading the visit. They'll try to sell me something I don't need or want. Isn't that what service shops do?
His daydreaming was interrupted by a message on the screen from Billy-Bob's: ``Sorry to hear you're having some trouble, Mr. 'Stone. We'll be awaiting your arrival. Drive to Service Bay 3 and we'll have you in and out in a jiffy. And remember, the lube's on us.''
Meanwhile, his pager displayed a message from home: ``While you're out having `fun' today, please decide what you want for dinner. Order groceries on the Internet and set up delivery for a half-hour before supper.''
Just no escaping the long arm of his better half.
He rolled into Billy-Bob's on schedule and pulled into Bay 3.
Billy-Bob himself—resplendent in crisp white pants and a navy blue blazer with a tire, wheel and grinning robot embroidered over the lapel—sauntered from the office, coffee cup in hand. ``Welcome, Mr. 'stone. Got it just the way you like it: two sugars, no cream latte with a spritz of cinnamon.''
``By the way...''
Oh, here it comes. Fred winced. The old hard-sell routine. I come in for one tire, I leave with four and a new fuel cell and a power unit and.... Heck, they may try to sell me a whole new engine.
``Did you know we just got us one of them new-fangled `design-a-tire' kiosks in?'' Billy-Bob asked. ``You can choose from a whole bunch of different tread patterns and colors and we can have 'em for you in no time. 'Course, if you pick some of them multi-colored tires, it'll take a few minutes longer.''
Billy-Bob was obviously pleased with himself. Who'd a thunk all these many years later this 'ol door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman would be running his own tire dealership.
Give customers what they want and need—he used to hear that all the time at those long-ago tire association seminars. Guess they were good for something.
As they watched, two droids sprang to attention, wiped grease from their robotic arms and did one of the quickest tire changes this side of the Indianapolis 1500.
In the background, a droid continually molded new tires, first checking an order sheet, punching a few buttons, then pouring chemicals
from small vats. Every three minutes a new colorized tire popped out.
Whenever that happened, the droid looked pleased, if that were even possible. Yet every now and again a loud bang from a service bay or a chemical spill alarm would blare, followed by droids buzzing around like, well, robots with their heads cut off.
``So hard to find good help,'' Billy-Bob muttered sadly. Finding good techs? What a laugh. Why, the competitors even steal away my droids. Offer 'em an updated memory board and they're gone.
Fred brooded. Time's a'wastin'. What in blazes is taking so long?
Still, he had to admit, of all the businesses he visited, Billy-Bob's was almost a pleasurable diversion. Good coffee, good tires, relatively good conversation. He began to think about how this is a real man's place—when it struck him: He was the only guy in a waiting room of women and children.
Younger kids climbed jungle gyms as older ones, perched at computers provided by Billy-Bob's, were surfing the Web, playing games or finishing their homework so they could modem it to their teachers.
Meanwhile, women were using every one of the eight phones alongside Service Bay 1. Conducting business. Making appointments. Closing deals.
Fred suddenly realized he had become somewhat of an anomaly.
He'd heard but hadn't believed, until now, that 97 percent of all auto service shop visits were being made by women. And they make the buying decisions. No more, ``You'll have to wait while I call my husband," or "I'll have to ask my boyfriend.''
Billy-Bob acknowledged that this colored tire thing had skyrocketed. Women simply loved color-coordinating their cars. And thank goodness he didn't have to hear that threadbare comment only the guys always seemed to make: ``Yup, they're round and black, and that's the way I like 'em.''
He kind of liked this turnabout in clientele.
Just then Fred's car rolled out of Bay 3. It had taken just about as long as Billy-Bob had promised. New tires. No heavy-handed sales job for a new fuel cell or anything. Not bad.
Talk about gleam. His dirty car had been washed for free by a detailing droid who obviously loved his work.
And when he fired her up, the onboard monitor cheerily beamed ``All systems GO!'' Seems ol' Billy-Bob's robo-tech had even adjusted that misfiring cylinder thing—and hadn't charged him.
Whoa. Maybe it would be a good day after all.
Before hitting the road for another marathon of sales calls, Fred decided to stop off at the washroom to freshen up.
The door creaked open. A single bare 40-watt bulb dangled from frayed wires. The sink was coated with a layer of grease circa at least 1970. Paper towels overflowed the garbage can, but none in the dispenser. The floor looked like it hadn't tasted a mop since soap was invented.
The commode, well let's not even go there.
Damn, he thought. Even with all the technology and robotics and stuff, they still can't keep the bathrooms clean.
Some things never change.