The Car as the Star

Vehicles as Cybershells in Transhuman Space

by Phil Masters

As the Transhuman Space core book notes (p.TS121), there are literally thousands of different designs of cybershell available in the world of 2100; the templates in that book and in subsequent supplements can only scratch the surface of the subject. Strangely enough, though, Transhuman Space and Fifth Wave also describe a couple more potential cybershells, without defining them as such. This article covers that gap.

The point here is that virtually all vehicles in this setting have built in computer brains which are fully capable of running useful AIs -- even fully sapient mind emulations which could be used as PCs. Viewing a groundcar or aircar as a character may seem a little odd, but after all, there have been more than a few movies, TV series, and books which treat cars as central characters, giving them either "magical" intelligence or computer brains, so there's no reason why it shouldn't work in a game.

One way to handle vehicle computers in game terms is suggested in passing in the main Transhuman Space book; give the AI a Microframe cybershell and then buy the vehicle with cash as ordinary property. After all, the computer can always be unbolted and moved somewhere else. This works well enough for large vehicles such as spaceships, but some computers are inextricably part of the smaller vehicles in which they are installed -- and in any case, it's nice to have the option of playing a entire car as a character (or buying it with points as a faithful Programmed Ally).

However, while a car PC could well be fun, GMs should note, before permitting or encouraging the idea, that cars are big and cumbersome when compared to human beings, and can't get into some nightclubs. (They also have a very high point costs.) Vehicular PCs are likely to do best in campaigns focussing very much on life on the open road (or similar), possibly with just vehicle PCs. It would also be possible to run a PC infomorph with a car as one of several "vessels," others of which are smaller and more agile, or to play a car which teleoperates one or more smaller cybershells when necessary. For that matter, a PC vehicle could have a couple of small maintenance cybershells as Programmed Allies (p.TS130).

Also, a human (or similar size) PC could take a car as a Programmed Ally, or a team could share the cost of such an "assistant" between them. This should work, and indeed makes perfect sense; an "adventurer" or team might well have a personal vehicle with a high-quality, well-trained AI, quick to anticipate his or their needs and perhaps able to swoop in for the odd daring rescue. That said, players and GMs should note that merely owning a vehicle with an integral computer running an AI does not either imply or demand that it has to be a Programmed Ally. Most vehicle owners will regard their vehicle as interchangeable physical property.

To begin with, however, these designs need a couple of additional game features, to handle the sort of limitations from which they may suffer:

New Disadvantages

Limited Sense of Touch

-10 points

This disadvantage represents a unit whose body is a rigid shell with no contact sensors, and hence absolutely no sense of touch over most of its surface. The unit may have simple pressure-sensor "bumpers" to warn of collisions with solid objects, and will necessarily have some tactile feedback in any hands or other grippers (this being necessary for hands to be any real use at all), but even these are less sensitive than the human norm. The unit must make a sense roll to use touch to determine even the general shape of something, and cannot discern subtleties of texture by feel (unless it has the Micromanipulators advantage, p.TS131). Many characters with this disadvantage also have Reduced Manual Dexterity (p.CI83) or Bad/Poor Grip (p.CI101), to represent general poor tactile and manipulative abilities.

This disadvantage doesn't grant immunity or insensitivity to pain -- no functional, self-aware being can entirely ignore physical damage -- although it's usually accompanied by a High Pain Threshold, which forms part of the Machine Body advantage (p.TS131). It is primarily designed to represent cybershells with plain metal casings, although it might also be used for alien biological races with hard, insensitive shells or carapaces, or even humans suffering from obscure (and dangerous) neurological problems.

Characters with a Limited Sense of Touch will of course realize that they are in physical contact with an object if they find their movement blocked, even without a "bumper" being contacted. They may also very well be able to see a thing touching them, or hear an impact and deduce the significance of the sound.

Note: Logically, one might expect some existing cybershell templates to include this disadvantage. However, there are ways to rationalize and justify its omission in most cases. Smart matter (p.TS73) is widely available in the Transhuman Space world, and a cheap "passive" version could be used to provide a basic sense of touch for even low- cost 'shells. And yes, even cheap desktop microframe units could be given contact-sensitive casings; after all, it might well be useful for such a computer to know when it's being handled or moved. Still, this disadvantage could reasonably be added to units with the Microframe, Mainframe, or Macroframe cybershell templates, with GM permission. Just remember that such a cybershell has no idea of what's happening around it, unless it can see or hear what's going on, and may suffer all sorts of minor inconveniences at the GM's whim.

Restricted Movement (Wheels/Tracks)

-15 or -25 points

This represents the practical problems encountered by any mechanical character who gets around on the ground on simple wheels or fairly crude tracks. (Note that some wheeled or tracked units may have sophisticated, versatile chassis designs which mean that they have no serious mobility problems compared to normal, legged humans.) It comes in two levels:

Somewhat Restricted Movement: This represents a unit with some "off road" capability, perhaps from tracks or large wheels, but nothing like as good as a legged robot or human being. The unit can handle shallow steps and obstructions up to 1/3 its own height, although it may bog down in mud or snow. It can ascend shallow staircases (although the GM may rule that it is vulnerable to being pushed or knocked back while doing so), but not ladders. It can also turn in its own length, or at least by rotating round one wheel, as it can vary the power going to different wheels quite freely. It suffers a -1 penalty to both attack and defense rolls in melee combat (except for slam attempts), due to restricted agility. -15 points.

Very Restricted Movement: This represents a unit which is only designed to move around on smooth, flat surfaces -- say, good, "made-up" roads, or the floor of a laboratory. It can't handle steps or even simple obstructions more than 1/4 its own height, and it will rapidly bog down in mud or snow. It also suffers a -3 penalty to both attack and defense rolls in melee combat (apart from slam attempts), due to poor agility, and -2 to rolls to resist being pushed or knocked back, due to poor traction. At the GM's option, it may move at a fraction of its normal rate in "off-road" conditions; see the rules for vehicles with ground pressure problems in GURPS Vehicles if you want details. It also requires space equal to at least its own length or width (whichever is greater) in which to turn around. -25 points.

Characters with either level of this disadvantage cannot take Acrobatics skill at all, and can only take Climbing if they have arms with ST equal to at least 1/10 their weight in pounds, in which case they still suffer a -3 penalty to all uses of the skill. They can only "jump" by running up a suitable ramp or similar at high speed; GMs will have to rule on the problems and dangers this involves. The disadvantage cannot generally be taken if the character can fly -- there's no great problem being restricted in one's ground movement if one can simply fly over any obstacles. (GMs may optionally make an exception for flying characters with high stall speeds or severely limited flight endurance, who thus have to spend most of their time on the ground.)

Note that the disadvantage still permits the character to move at full normal speed (under good conditions); it may be associated with Reduced Move (p.TS103), but it may equally well be associated with high ground speeds.

Sample Vehicular Cybershell Packages

The following are based on vehicle designs which have appeared in past Transhuman Space books, for ease of reference. With modular design systems for various types of vehicle appearing in several upcoming books in the line, coming up with more should be quite straightforward.


964 points

Attribute Modifiers: ST +240 (No fine manipulators, -40%) [171]; HT +2 [20].

Advantages: Absolute Direction (Uses GPS, -20%) [4]; DR 5 [15]; Extra Encumbrance [5]; Extra Hit Points +119 [595]; Filter Lungs (Affects others +40%; Only works for passengers, -20%) [6]; Infravision [15]; Machine Body [37]; Night Vision [10]; Passive Defense +3 [75]; Penetrating Vision (actually millimetric radar: Blocked by metal -30%, Low-res imaging only -20%) [5]; Peripheral Vision [15]; Polarized Eyes [5]; Radio Speech [25]; Super Running x4 [80]; Telescopic Vision x1 [6].

Disadvantages: Horizontal [-10]; Inconvenient Size (Large) [-10]; Limited Sense of Touch [-10]; Mistaken Identity [-5]; No Manipulators [-50]; No Sense of Smell/Taste [-5]; Social Stigma (Valuable Property) [-10]; Very Restricted Movement (Wheels/Tracks) [-25].

Features: Complexity 5-7 small computer. Internal space (room for four passengers plus luggage).

Date: c.2055 Cost: $23,625 + computer.

This design is based on the vehicle in Fifth Wave (p.FW131). Civilian vehicles are designed to run for long periods with amateur or no servicing, so there is no relevant Dependency in its disadvantage list, but some older or more heavily modified models may gain this sort of problem. 1,650 lbs. unladen, 9' long.

Variations: A purely electrically powered design (such as the Ground Car on p.TS193) might have a similar package, but with Doesn't Breathe instead of Filter Lungs, and Limited Endurance (p.TS134 -- usually at the -10 point level) to reflect strictly finite battery life. Some designs might extend the former advantage to cover the passengers, if they have a sealed compartment and an air supply; this would be especially appropriate, especially if combined with a lower level of the Restricted Movement disadvantage, for vehicles operating on Mars or Luna.

Off-Road Vehicle

3507 points

Attribute Modifiers: ST +640 (No fine manipulators, -40%) [291]; HT +2 [20].

Advantages: Absolute Direction (Uses GPS, -20%) [4]; DR 8 [24]; Extra Encumbrance [5]; Extra Hit Points +588 [2940]; Filter Lungs (Affects others +40%; Only works for passengers, -20%) [6]; Infravision ( Front quarter only -20%) [12]; Machine Body [37]; Night Vision [10]; Passive Defense +3 [75]; Penetrating Vision (actually millimetric radar: Blocked by metal -30%, Front quarter only -20%, Low-res imaging only -20%) [3]; Peripheral Vision [15]; Polarized Eyes [5]; Radar Sense, 5 hex/mile range (Imaging and low-res modes +50%, Front quarter only -20%) [71]; Radio Speech [25]; Super Running x3 [60]; Telescopic Vision x4 (Front quarter only, -20%) [19].

Disadvantages: Horizontal [-10]; Inconvenient Size (Large) [-10]; Limited Sense of Touch [-10]; Mistaken Identity [-5]; No Manipulators [-50]; No Sense of Smell/Taste [-5]; Social Stigma (Valuable Property) [-10]; Somewhat Restricted Movement (Wheels/Tracks) [-15].

Features: Complexity 5-7 small computer. Internal space (seats for four passengers plus cargo).

Date: c.2055 Cost: $79,020 + computer.

This design is based on the Alvarez "Oruga" in Fifth Wave, p.FW130. Variants on this template might be used to represent a wide range of rugged utility vehicles, some possibly with built-in Weaponry (p.TS132). Again, actual maintenance requirements are assumed to be low, though some designs and older vehicles might add a Dependency to reflect the need for more frequent servicing. (Any vehicle might have such problems, but off-road models, however robust, tend to suffer the worst batterings.) 6,200 lbs. unladen, 13' long.

Air Car

940 points

Attribute Modifiers: ST +190 (No fine manipulators, -40%) [156]; HT +1 [10].

Advantages: Absolute Direction (Uses GPS, -20%) [4]; DR 5 [15]; Extra Encumbrance [5]; Extra Hit Points +83 [415]; Filter Lungs (Affects Others, +40%; Only works for passengers, -20%) [6]; Flight (Limited use: 6 hours) [36]; Increased Speed x1 [25]; Infravision [15]; Machine Body [37]; Night Vision [10]; Passive Defense +3 [75]; Penetrating Vision (actually millimetric radar: Blocked by metal -30%, Low-res imaging only -20%) [5]; Peripheral Vision [15]; Polarized Eyes [5]; Radar Sense, 5 hex/mile range (Imaging and low-res modes +50%) [82]; Radio Speech [25]; Super Flight x4 [80];Telescopic Vision x4 [24].

Disadvantages: Dependency (Maintenance: common, monthly) [-5]; Horizontal [-10]; Inconvenient Size (Large) [-10]; Limited Sense of Touch [-10]; Mistaken Identity [-5]; No Manipulators [-50]; No Sense of Smell/Taste [-5]; Social Stigma (Valuable Property) [-10].

Features: Complexity 5-7 small computer. Internal space (room for four passengers plus limited luggage).

Date: c.2065 Cost: $98,000 + computer.

This design is based on the standard air car from the Transhuman Space core book (p.TS193). Note that, although it has an endurance of only four hours at maximum speed, it can operate for somewhat longer than that at lower speeds, and the reserve battery can keep the on-board computer functioning for days. It has air-breathing engines, and this treatment assumes that it is restricted to fairly low altitudes; a version capable of using the very thin atmosphere at high altitudes might replace Filter Lungs with Doesn't Breathe. 600 lbs. unladen, 15' long.

Further Notes

  1. The Peripheral Vision advantage represents the fact that vehicles such as these have multiple small cameras mounted around the bodywork, enabling the controlling AI (or a human driver) to monitor events in all directions with ease. In fact, an AI might be able to monitor every camera at once, giving 360-degree Vision (+10 points to package costs); however, this would probably require specially enhanced visual processing subsystems, and hence would only be available to AIs specifically designed as vehicle controllers.
  2. Information from a vehicle's sensors may be available to crew or passengers who can connect their personal interface systems to the vehicle (or just through screens). GMs who consider this important and worth charging for may add a net +20% enhancement (Affects others, Passengers/crew only) to each sense-related advantage.
  3. The vehicles' internal carrying space is considered a "feature" here. GMs who feel that it should cost points might treat it as the Flesh Pockets advantage (p.TS131), but as it isn't concealed, this seems excessive.
  4. Obviously, many variant designs are possible. Not only could vehicle shells have greater or lesser ST ratings, hit point totals, and DR (representing varying sizes, load- carrying capacities, and body shell strengths), but some could drop Limited Sense of Touch (representing advanced smart matter bodywork, for owners who want their vehicle AIs to be able to park in the smallest spaces with startling delicacy). Minor variations in HT are also possible, to represent better or more rugged frames and generally superior construction, although at the prevailing Tech Level of Transhuman Space, no vehicle can have a HT higher than 12. Using one of the modular vehicle design systems mentioned above will produce a design fully compatible with the setting's technological assumptions.
  5. For that matter, offbeat designs could drop Mistaken Identity (for unique "custom jobs"), or No Sense of Smell/Taste (there must be some use to chemosensors fitted to cars). Liquid crystal coatings could give Chameleon. Obviously, such additions and variations will tend to add to the cash cost of the vehicle.
  6. Robotic vehicles are deeply familiar in 2100, and people tend to trust them implicitly. It would be quite plausible to add Sanctity to at least the first of the templates above...
  7. The total hit points for these templates are based on the body hit points for the vehicle in question. GMs and players who wish to get into the detail of damage to wheels and other external components can consult the notes on these designs in the original books.

Sample Vehicular AI Systems

These are basic, serviceable AIs of the sort which are available "off the shelf" to go with new vehicles. PCs who want personalized Programmed Ally vehicles will almost certainly want something a little more, well, personal -- but they could reasonably take these systems as a basis, and add skills to reflect individual training and experience for the AI.

Groundcar NAI

-11 points

Disadvantages: NAI-5 (gives IQ 9) [-20].

Quirks: Obeys the law by default. [-1]

Skills: Computer Operation-12 [0]; Driving (Automobile)-12* [8]; Law (specialized in Traffic Laws)-6/12 [1]; Orienteering-8 [1]. *Assumes a DX 10 cybershell.

Cost: $1,500.

This is the kind of system which is commonplace for standard smartcars. Its capabilities reflect the basic legal requirements for automated vehicle operations in most Fourth and Fifth Wave countries -- in summary, that the AI should be able to operate the vehicle safely at speed and operate its electronic systems and sensors.

Such systems also have a strong innate tendency to obey the local traffic laws -- a "habit" introduced by programmers in response to years of legal pressure, liability suits, and pressure group chivying. As an NAI, the system also has a Reprogrammable Duty to whoever holds its control codes, which can be used to override this "inclination" -- but it will protest and quibble all the way, insofar as a non-sapient entity can argue, and an official investigator who subsequently obtains its control codes will easily be able to get it to give evidence against its owner. Deleting its recordings of such infractions is possible, but takes more technical skill than most owners possess, especially if they wish to make the fact of the tinkering hard to detect.

While its Driver skill is highly adequate, players may feel that it is rather low for a program which may be required to operate a smartcar at 140 mph. They should note, however, that as a NAI, the system has Single-Minded, indicating a capacity for concentration greater than most human drivers, and Enhanced Time Sense, enabling it to respond to most emergencies promptly and smoothly.

Off-Road Ops LAI

61 points

Advantages: LAI-6 (gives IQ 9) [40].

Skills: Computer Operation-12 [0]; Driving (All-Terrain Vehicle)-13* [16]; Electronics Operation (Communications)-8 [1]; Electronics Operation (Sensors)-8 [1]; Law (specialized in Traffic Laws)-6/12 [1]; Orienteering-9 [2].
*Assumes a DX 10 cybershell.

Cost: $7,100.

This is a rather more sophisticated ground vehicle AI, intended for installation in civilian vehicles working in unknown or dangerous terrain. It can get an off-road vehicle to a destination with minimal human intervention, and will sometimes display some initiative in the process. There are actually rather more programs of this type in use on Mars than on Earth, although counting very similar systems running on light military vehicles would probably more than tip the balance the other way.

Autopilot NAI

3 points

Disadvantages: NAI-5 (gives IQ 9) [-20].

Quirks: Obeys the law by default. [-1]

Skills: Aviation-9 [2]; Computer Operation-12 [0]; Electronics Operation (Communications)-9 [2]; Electronics Operation (Sensors)-9 [2]; Navigation-8* [2]; Piloting (any one specialization)-13** [16].
*Will receive a +3 bonus for Absolute Direction in virtually all vehicular cybershells. **Assumes a DX 10 cybershell.

Cost: $2,900.

This is in some ways the aviation equivalent of the groundcar NAI above, but more to the point, it is the refined and reliable product of over a century of autopilot development. Very similar models are used in a wide range of aircars and aircraft -- hence the wide choice of skill specialties.

However, although they are fully capable of handling an aircraft from start to finish of a journey, often better than many part-time human pilots (at least if nothing unexpected occurs), programs of this type are mostly used for holding air vehicles on level, steady courses, and are firmly instructed to request intervention if the slightest unexpected event occurs. While most people in 2100 have complete, habitual confidence in automated systems, many still prefer that life and death decisions be passed to somewhat sapient entities, if time permits. The widespread availability and fairly low cost of LAI systems means that this habit (or prejudice) is seen as quite tolerable, even by those who do not share it.

Pilot LAI

79 points

Advantages: LAI-6 (gives IQ 9) [40].

Skills: Aviation-10 [4]; Computer Operation- 12 [0]; Electronics Operation (Communications)-10 [4]; Electronics Operation (Sensors)-10 [4]; Navigation-8* [2]; Piloting (any one specialization)-14** [24]; Savoir-Faire (Servant)-9 [1].
*Will receive a +3 bonus for Absolute Direction in virtually all vehicular cybershells. **Assumes a DX 10 cybershell.

Cost: $8,900.

When civilian air vehicle owners are looking for automated systems to fly them around full time, this is the type of system they usually favor (probably with an NAI autopilot as backup). While no more skilled than many professional human pilots, it is very capable, and its capacity for concentration, immunity to drowsiness, and situational modeling ("Visualization") abilities make it extremely effective. It knows how to be polite, too.

Most such systems learn a few additional skills over time -- if only Area Knowledge of their owner's preferred routes -- and many seem to develop distinctive personalities. However, the latter is actually mostly a result of feedback processes coded into the AI; wealthy owners expect some kind of conversational feedback from their AIs, and the AIs obligingly respond after developing a model of their owner's responses.

Example Vehicle Character: "Harold" (1095 points)

ST 250 [0]; DX 10 [0]; IQ 10 [10]; HT 12/131 [0].

Advantages: Ally (Salvatore Cadalso: 150 points, appears 15-) [30]; Ally Group ("housemates": five 100 point characters, appear 12-) [40]; SAI-7 [65]; Smartcar [964].

Disadvantages: Chummy [-5]; Dependence (Maintenance; common, weekly) [-10]; Impulsiveness [-10]; Pacifism (Cannot kill) [-15].

Quirks: Evolving a dry sense of humor; Indiscriminate consumer of broadcast entertainment; Likes cats, unless they make messes on "his" upholstery; Obliging. [-4]

Skills: Area Knowledge (Madison)-11 [2]; Area Knowledge (USA)-9 [1/2]; Bartender-9 [1]; Carousing-10 [1/2]; Computer Operation-13 [0]; Driving (Automobile)-13 [16]; Electronics Operation (Communications)-9 [1]; Electronics Operation (Robotics)-10 [2]; Games (InVid Games)-11 [2]; Law (specialized in Traffic Laws)-7/13 [1]; Orienteering-10 [2].

Languages: English (native)-10 [0]; Spanish-10 [2].


"Harold" is the product of a research project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Salvatore Cadalso, a graduate student of robotics engineering, somehow obtained, not only permits to develop some of his department's sapient- grade AI templates and legacy code into a full program, but also a grant to support the work. Salvaging an old, damaged smartcar shell from somewhere, and performing just enough maintenance to render it street legal again, Cadalso has spent two years so far on his masterpiece. However, despite the fact that he has the thing up to full functionality, Cadalso's perfectionist streak prevents him from declaring the task anywhere near complete, especially as the grant still has two years to run, and somehow he has convinced his supervisors to permit him to "finish the job properly" -- despite the fact that the "project" has three thousand miles on the clock and is becoming a familiar site around the university. In truth, Cadalso couldn't bring himself to make radical modifications to his new friend's personality these days, although he is doing interesting work on its operational interfaces.

Harold is now part of the household in which Cadalso lives, along with a number of other individuals more or less associated with the university, or just unwilling to leave. (While on-site residence is no longer considered obligatory for most such educational institutions, there are somehow always some reasons for some people to live on or near a campus.) Harold has become something of a group mascot, as well as providing them with transport, and the fact that "he" is probably technically the university's property somehow seems to have been forgotten. Whether "he" is worth the trouble of "his" continuing maintenance requirements and running costs to the group might be an open question, but they have become very attached to "him."

It is also an open question how commercially useful this project will ever be, although it is certainly may prove interesting to AI researchers on a technical level (and may one day be documented as some kind of horrible warning). Cadalso claims in his progress reports that one of his intentions is to test the possibility of "socializing" technically-oriented SAI personalities by extended exposure to human interaction. What this means in practice is that the car gets to join in many of the household's activities; thanks to some "experiments" which Cadalso is conducting with small teleoperated cybershells, Harold is even learning how to mix drinks. Still, Harold has developed a personality which enables "him" to fit in well with the people around him; very good natured and respectful of others, sociable, obliging, and always willing to throw himself into something new -- usually only metaphorically . . .

Note: For a version of Harold with a more normal character point total, replace the Smartcar cybershell advantage with a Microframe (p.TS122), and drop the Dependency on maintenance (which is a problem of the vehicle body, not the brain). This gives ST --, DX 10, IQ 10, HT 12/8, and a points total of 87. This version of Harold usually lives in the boot of the car, plugged into its sensor and control systems, but can be unplugged and moved around in a large case if he wants to go to parties in "person."

Article publication date: December 27, 2002

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