On Sunday, we planned to meet for a family gathering in New Jersey. The Friday before, Lauren and I started a leisurely drive down I-95 to my father’s house. Before getting there, we would pick up my daughter, Rachel, at Newark Airport. She had spent the week in Florida working on a Habitat for Humanity house build project.
There were also Habitat projects nearby in Massachusetts. But for her school vacation week, the Florida project had the added appeal of being a few miles from the Gulf Coast. So she joined her youth group for a community service project that included a little beach time with palm trees in addition to the community service.
My son, Dan, was also meeting us for the celebration. He was driving to NY from Massachusetts in a separate car so he could stay with his friends that Saturday in Manhattan. The plan was that after the party on Sunday, we would trade cars and passengers. Dan and I would drive back to Boston, and Lauren and Rachel would visit two prospective colleges.
Sounds simple, right? To recap: Lauren and I drove to NY on Friday to pick up our daughter Rachel at Newark airport, while our son Dan drove a separate car to Manhattan.
Starting out early Friday afternoon, the weather was fine and the traffic was light. So far, so good. Dan was about 20 exits ahead of us on I-95 and he reported smooth sailing. We were riding in Lauren’s Prius. If you’ve been in a Prius, you should note that it has a complex, high-tech panel which displays everything. As I drove, the Prius gleefully reported its achievement of more than 50 miles per gallon. The dashboard display also had information about the hybrid drive, the inside temperature, the outside temperature, something called “eco mode”, and the status of current stock market prices in Tashkent.
With such a comprehensive display, I was lucky to be able to focus on the road. I thought that most Prius drivers must be Techno-Geeks with a bad case of ADD.
The newsradio traffic report started to get ominous as we approached the NY border. Unlike Boston, where conditions on all the key roads can be covered in 3 minutes, there are so many NY highways and traffic jams that radio alternates with each 3 minute snippet report: Long Island this time, New Jersey next time, the utterly clogged Hudson River crossings after that. As we drive through Stanford, Connecticut, the radio reported conditions on the Cross Bronx Expressway. The story was not good. This highway, a segment of I-95 approaching the George Washington Bridge, is usually in a sorry condition most of the day.
But this time things were much worse. An accident had taken out two lanes. The 16 lanes of traffic from the New England Throughway, Whitestone Bridge and Throggs Neck Bridge were trying to squeeze into the remaining two open lanes. As a result, cars were at a standstill. The newsradio announcer pleaded for people to avoid the Cross Bronx Expressway. I felt a bad for the poor saps trapped in the Bronx, but I was otherwise relieved overall.
My relief was short-lived. We weren’t taking the Cross Bronx Expressway, but Dan was. When Dan mapped out his route, Google recommended the Cross Bronx as the most direct connection to his friend’s apartment in Manhattan. Unfortunately, Google did not take into account the fact that this highway should be avoided at almost all times. So Dan was on the Cross Bronx, and he was trapped in an epic traffic jam. He called Lauren’s I-phone in desperation. He was moving about 0.3 miles per hour. To make things worse, he absolutely had to arrive his friend’s apartment in two hours, or impossible and undo complications would ensue. There was no option. None. He pleaded with us: you have to find an alternate route.
We went back and forth a bit on the growing dilemma. Although I am not a Prius-type techno geek, I do have a built-in GPS in my head. Therefore, I am a geospatial geek. I know every road and how to give directions. For Dan’s predicament, it seemed that if he could veer off to the Triboro Bridge, he could escape from the jam. But unfortunately, but the time he called, he had inched past the Triboro exit. He was still trapped.
I said to Lauren that it would be excellent if we had a map of NY to plot an alternate route for Dan.
Lauren said, “Why don’t we ask Siri?”
I said, “That’s a great idea. Who is Siri?” I was concerned because I didn’t think there was anyone else in the car.
It turned out that Siri is not a person. She is a built-in computerized assistant in Lauren’s Iphone. You can talk to Siri, ask her questions, and she will respond with assistance.
Lauren held up the Iphone and said, “Siri, show me a map of the Bronx”.
In her pleasant computer voice, Siri responded: “You want to see a fox?”
Either Siri was a little hard of hearing, or perhaps the Apple programmers had released this voice-activated assistant as a Beta test case. The idea was to release the software a bit early to the programmers could learn more and improve on the bugs.
Lauren said. “No Siri. Show me a map of the Bronx.”
Siri said, “You want to wear spanx?”
After a few more tries, Siri figured out that we wanted to see a map of the Bronx. Miraculously, an interactive map appeared on the phone’s display. We were able to select an alternate route for Dan, but now we had a new problem. We could describe it to Dan, but we had no way to tell him because we were using the Iphone for its map.
But then I remembered I had a cell phone as well. Lauren called Dan and described an alternate route in real time as he drove it. Things got a little hairier with two cell phones going simultaneously, but we were able to transmit the directions step-by-step. Dan found his way to a breakdown lane and an exit. Soon he was on driving Westchester Avenue in free flowing traffic and on his way to the Triboro Bridge. Armageddon had been averted.
Between saving Dan and making it to Newark Airport, we took advantage of a group of technologies that was not available a scant 10 years ago. We used cell phone calls, GPS applications and automated assistance. At one point I didn’t even have to take out toll money. Lauren had a transponder and we drove through the toll booths on the NJ Turnpike using EZ Pass.
We were able to tackle and solve transportation problems in a way that couldn’t even be imagined even a few years ago. At one point, it seemed like half the earth’s satellites were helping us.
I thought about this expansive suite of transportation technology. In the past, the future was supposed to be like the Jetsons. Everyone would have helicopter cars and would fly to work on air expressways.
This past vision of the future did not make it to the present, at least not yet. We still drive in cars and not helicopters. But the technology that actually has developed is astonishing, and it leads to potentially amazing improvements in transportation management and flow.
We successfully picked up Rachel at the airport, calling in advance (on cell phones) to time it so that she would be outside and I wouldn’t have to park. On the way back from the airport, we got a taste of the vast legacy of NY area infrastructure. The Prius dashboard reported that an Ibex was spotted in southern Chile (I think that’s what it said). As I was distracted , I missed a turnoff and we ended up on the NJ Turnpike spur to the Holland Tunnel. The spur crosses a large, through-arch truss bridge over Newark Bay. Officially named the Vincent Casciano Memorial Bridge, it would be considered a major crossing in most cities. But the New York area has such an impressively vast amalgamation of infrastructure, this giant bridge is not so well known.
Since I never get lost or make a mistake with directions, Lauren and Rachel were suspicious that my driving error was really an excuse to go back and forth across the bridge. I had to admit that experiencing the grand old structure was pleasant and calming after the stress of ride. Also, the Turnpike Authority was redecking and I got to look at the work zones and construction in progress. But, really, it was an accident that we ended up on the bridge that day and I got to drive across it. Twice.
Our adventure in transportation technology was almost complete. The kids were safe, Dan arrived on time and we made it through in one piece. Driving north on the NJ Turnpike, the view is startling and beautiful. You can see the sun shining on all of mid-Manhattan. A little further south, the new Liberty Tower had just topped out and started to make its visual mark as the new icon.
It was almost time for dinner. We pulled over to a rest stop to find food. Lauren said: “Siri, locate a restaurant.”
Siri said, “I found a basement.”
Lauren said. “No Siri, find me a restaurant.”
Siri said, “Lauren, should I call your aunt?”
Lauren was ready to fling Siri out the window, where she would whither in the vast expanse of the Hackensack Meadowland. I asked Lauren if I could give it a try. She handed me the Iphone.
I said: “Goodnight, Siri.”
Siri said, “Goodnight, Brian.”