Milwaukee's Department of Public Works heard Gov. Scott Walker’s message loud and clear: It’s time to tighten your belt. So when the department looked at the single largest expense in its annual budget – paying snowplow drivers overtime – DPW planner Erin Kowolski introduced a plan she thought would be a win-win.
With the 2016-17 winter nearly behind us, the tally is in: The DPW’s fleet of 200 self-driving snowplows destroyed 3,019 parked cars, killed or injured 29 stray cats, created 17,898 potholes/sinkholes and sent one elderly South Side man to the hospital after burying him in a snow drift.
"Yeah, I guess Milwaukee isn’t quite ready for this technology," admits Kowolski. "We are considering 'hiring' monkeys to drive the plows next season."
In fact, homeowners and insurance companies have filed more than 5,000 lawsuits against the City, ranging from property to auto damage, as well as pain and suffering from seeing pets flattened by the errant trucks.
"In one week, these killer plows sliced the roof off my Kia Rondo, uprooted my favorite elm tree and hit my dog Tim," says Tom LaMalfa, who is suing the City for $10 million. "The DPW has ruined my life."
In its pilot program, the City had considered using well-tested self-driving plows built by Google and Tesla, but instead opted to install hardware from RadioShack in its existing trucks. "We really were trying to save taxpayers' money," says Kowolski, "but in the end, this might be the most expensive winter on record."
Additionally, Milwaukee abandoned its longtime practice of salting roads, instead dumping less-expensive hydrochloric acid crystals from the unmanned plows that rampaged through the streets at an average of 47 miles per hour.
Kowolski says the department figured that the corrosive chemical would melt ice much faster than salt; however, she didn’t anticipate the third-degree burns that pedestrians would experience when their boots came in contact with the roads and disintegrated. Each time it snowed this winter, area hospitals reported a tenfold increase in emergency room cases of singed lungs and scalded extremities.
"My Uggs actually melted into Lake Drive," says Whitefish Bay's Missy Klein. "They would've been better off salting the roads with the acid blood from 'Alien.'"
The program has also left the Lake Michigan shoreline devastated. The DPW instructed its self-driving plows to dump loads of collected snow at South Shore Park and Bradford Beach. However, the acid melted rocks in the breakwater, killing an estimated 4 million fish. Scientists have declared the area from Oak Creek to Grafton unsuitable for boating, swimming and fishing until 2019.
"It’s weird how badly this turned out," says Kowalski, who based her recommendation on a study in Mountain View, Calif. In that experiment, one snowplow successfully cleared a vacant parking lot with one centimeter of artificial snow in full daylight.
"Maybe it’s different in real-world conditions, like a foot of snow in the middle of the night," she admits.
To add insult to injury, some 500 seasonal drivers were also left without income this winter. "I’ve been driving plow since 1968," notes Stan Knop, 73. "While the loss of work hurts, at least I’ll probably have a job repaving all them roads this summer. Unless they give that to the computers, too."
The City must also contend with the plows that gained sentience and left their routes to presumably reform as a rogue truck army, hellbent on destroying its creators, RadioShack and the City of Milwaukee.
"We only lost about a dozen trucks, but we don’t know where they are since they self-dismantled their GPS systems," says Kowalski. "I’m a little concerned that the plows have regrouped in Cudahy and learned how to weaponize HCL … but one thing at a time."
Meanwhile, not all areas of Milwaukee were affected by the runaway snowplows. Mysteriously, areas of the North Side weren’t plowed at all, the entire winter, so residents weren’t in any danger.
"Yeah, we were pretty much housebound from December to March," notes Larry Cooper, 1935 W. Meinecke Ave. "But none of our children were sprayed with acid or attacked by angry robots, so that’s something."