Cinema has always been a stomping ground for cutting-edge scientific advancement, but that’s not to say that everything we see in the movies is directly translated from our television sets into reality on a regular basis. Often the depiction of a gadget or capability in a sci-fi film simply sets a trend — and possibly a bit of a designers flair — for the eventual realization of a similar technological advancement in our own realities.
Take, for example, Jean Luc Picard wielding a flat “tablet-esque” screen as he directed the intrepid crew of the Enterprise back in the eighties. When tablets first arrived on the scene a couple of decades later, they were hardly accompanied by massive spaceships or spandex military uniforms. And yet, the precedent had been set, and the modern tablet evolved from there.
But of course, the invention of tablets — both in the movies and out of them — is already a thing of the past. An interesting, more current question is how the fictitious representation self-driving cars has shaped our thoughts and expectations as the dawn of the era of autonomous vehicles has slowly crept upon us. Let’s take a quick stroll through memory lane, shall we? Self-Driving Vehicles in Media
Self-driving cars in movies and entertainment isn’t a new phenomenon. All the way back in 1990, for instance, Total Recall set some interesting standards when Quaid hopped into a Johnny Cab to escape his pursuers. The automated vehicle possessed a synthetic bust of a driver who communicated with passengers. However, when push came to shove, Quaid had to literally rip the inhuman driver out of its place and take over himself, driving the vehicle with a simple, easy to access joystick.
However, nearly a decade before Quaid was tearing up the pavement with his Johnny Cab, K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider was already providing quite a different take on the whole autonomous vehicle schtick. The advanced car from the film was equipped with an AI that interacted with drivers in much the same way as modern virtual assistants do, taking requests and discussing knowledgeable information and options, albeit on a more sophisticated level than Siri or Alexa currently possess.
A more recent example of self-driving cars can be found in the 2004 movie iRobot. In this case, quite an interesting manifestation presents itself as Detective Spooner and Calvin race along a thoroughfare within their self-driving vehicle. When Spooner takes over “manual control” the decision petrifies Calvin, who sees it as a reckless action at the speeds at which autonomous cars travel.
The real-life implications are worth highlighting. The fact that a “manual” safety override for an autonomous vehicle would be built in hints at the natural paranoia that self-driving cars tend to cause. In addition, the fact that the precision of automated driving would allow a car to travel at speeds dangerous for humans to control on their own is also fascinating.
Another film that came out just a couple of years earlier, and which sported a much more radical version of the self-driving automobile, was Minority Report. In this case, the futuristic atmosphere was advanced enough to include vertical as well as horizontal roads and vehicles that appear to move without the need for tires. The Reality of Self-Driving Cars … for Now
There are numerous other examples of autonomous vehicles that have made their way onto the silver screen over the years. The question that begs to be asked, though, is whether any of these representations are remotely close to the self-driving vehicles that could become common on our own highways and byways as soon as this year .
For one thing, the fear of a loss of control that movies like iRobot represent certainly exists, albeit in an altered form. While the Isaac Asimov-inspired film focuses on the concern of rogue AI robots, the cybersecurity flaws of self-driving cars in the real world have been one of the top issues that developers have had to struggle with as they iron out the operating details. In an era where multiple terrorist attacks have involved driven vehicles, such as the truck that was driven into a crowd in Nice, France in 2016 , the concern that hackers could simply take over an autonomous car and control it for their own nefarious purposes is real. It has made impeccable cybersecurity a must as self-driven cars prepare to hit the road en masse.
Another interesting connection between the movies and the modern self-driving car prototypes actually can be found in the rather extreme example of Minority Report. While the bulk of that film’s self-driving exposition seems to be decades if not centuries in the future, the basic interior of the cars themselves is worth noting. Of particular interest is the two-way facing seating arrangement. Rather than focusing on looking at where they’re going, passengers are expected to face each other, presumably to interact as they travel.
This jives with the modern expectation that self-driving vehicles will, indeed, remove the need to focus on where one is going. Gone will be the days of having a “defensive driving” attitude while commuting. In fact, no driving attitude will be required. Face-to-face conversations and even video games are poised to become the norm of car-driven travel in the not-too-distant future. Alike and Yet so Different
The truth is, as is the case with so many sci-fi-inspired inventions, self-driving cars are likely to be both similar and completely different from what we’re used to seeing in theaters. Some things, such as interacting with clever interfaces and traveling safely and comfortably without actually needing to drive, are likely to be a reality sooner rather than later. However, other things, like traveling vertically, are likely far in the future. And thankfully, having Johnny Cabs explode when we can’t pay the fee will probably never be a part of our reality.