Novel imagines self-driving cars as weapons of terror
“Nobody wants to read a technical thesis about the gritty details of fully automating cars and trucks on freeways,” fictional hero and civil engineer Jake Bendel says in chapter eight of "Civil Terror: Gridlock," the new thriller novel by J. Luke Bennecke.
A novel with villains weaponizing autonomous cars is another thing entirely.
Bennecke's first novel involves a terrorist attack in which 175,000 self-driving cars and trucks are turned into out-of-control ramming devices on seven miles of California's famed Interstate 405 freeway. Thousands are killed in minutes. That vision never entered my imagination until I read the book.
I like that "Civil Terror" promotes both its hero and its villain as genius civil engineers.
“I'm a civil engineer, not a cop, not a spy,” the book's hero exclaims early, and it reminded me of meek characters in intense thrillers like Tom Clancy's "Patriot Games" of 1987, where the hero was a nerdy a researcher, and James Grady's "Six Days of the Condor" of 1974, where the hero was a geeky reader.
Bennecke is a civil engineer who spent three decades designing bridges and roads. He views the rising highway death toll and increasingly congested traffic nationwide as a problem that will only get worse unless smarter cars and smarter roads are implemented.
“We can't just keep adding lanes,” he commented during one interview about his book. “The freeway system started breaking down in the 1990s. We need new technology, not just putting money into more concrete.”
His believes our current road system, specifically California freeways, will become gridlocked without autonomous cars and trucks.
The development of autonomous cars and smart roads means that the U.S. transportation system can move five times as much traffic more quickly than it does now, he says, saving so much time for mobility users that Bennecke's professional estimate is it would add a half-trillion dollars a year to the economy.
Listening to my civil engineer friends has always expanded my appreciation of big, man-made things like buildings and bridges. It's not as much as I'm awed by cars, but I still stare whenever I visit the Mackinac Bridge.
So I'm compelled when I read geek fiction like this: “There’s a huge chunk of reinforced concrete buried at the bottom of each column that holds up the bridge deck. If the soil underneath and around the footings is saturated with water, the soil would liquefy, and any type of lateral or horizontal force hitting the columns would be amplified. If you could blow up the area around the footing and displace it a few meters to the side, the column would become structurally unstable and suffer catastrophic damage.”
That geek dialogue is likely not entertaining to the general audience. Published early this year, the book is on a path to become a video series. Bennecke is finishing a second book about civil engineering drama: a thriller about a catastrophic water shortage in his homeland of Southern California.
As entertainment, "Civil Terror: Gridlock" is a complete geek thriller; I finished the second half of the 452 pages in one sitting. But what I was looking for, and I suspect more Detroit-area readers may also seek, is a deeper dive into thought-provoking geek exposition about the social and psychological vulnerabilities of autonomous cars and the necessary smart roads they will need, not just the engineering of these systems.