Autonomous driving on screen: sci-fi fantasy to sci-fi reality
In this article, we’ll be exploring:
What are the new predictions for driverless in movies and TV? Is there anything new and exciting?
Are these concepts really that new?
Have we reached a creative plateau? Or are filmmakers and designers just being lazy?
The smart tech: driverless cars and air taxis
Has it come true? Kind of…
Series three of Westworld has been a lockdown saviour for many sci-fi fans, but the tech-filled western has traded dusty towns and bionic horses for sleek futuristic cities and fully level-5 driverless vehicles.
Creator Jonathan Nolan’s incredible dystopian future where drivers aren’t anywhere to be seen has been highly praised by critics and future-thinkers, but the vision and execution is completely founded in current futurism.
According to Nolan, who also fully believes driverless cars will be the norm in the not-too-distant future, all of the concepts and designs are built on what we kind of know, and what we can roughly expect. Yes, the almost all-glass, suicide-doored Audi that ferries Dolores around in some scenes is actually a year-old Audi Aicon concept car, and even the incredible e-VTOL that takes off and lands at Delos HQ isn’t actually too sci-fi – maybe just a slight upgrade of Lilium’s incredible ‘flying taxi’ (we spoke to the designer of the Lilium Jet e-VTOL Frank Stephenson earlier this year).
Although the show is certainly set in a time where humanoid robots are commonplace, the tech still feels very familiar.
The driverless tech: driverless ambulances
Is it new? For movies and TV, yes, sort of.
Has it come true? We’re getting there
One of the stand-out driverless vehicles used in Westworld for us however is the driverless ambulance from episode three.
Think this sounds futuristic? Nope. A team in Hungary have already carried out a study into patients’ willingness to get taken to hospital in a driverless ambulance, and a team at Caltech have already designed and hypothesised a driverless air ambulance that goes above and beyond the Westworld team’s imagination.
The driverless tech: driverless motorcycle
Is it new for the movies? Yep, we haven’t seen anything that cool before
Has it come true? No, but we don’t think it will be too long
Nolan’s commitment to making stuff that’s still fairly recognisable leaves us with some shiny new driverless tech to fawn over, but even the fully autonomous bike that doubles up as a weapon is already science fact.
Are there any bigger, better and more unrecognizable driverless cars?
The smart tech: flying autonomous cars, driverless spacecraft
Has it come true? No
Is it new? Nope
Altered Carbon, the 2017 Netflix series which brought us Fifth-Element-esque flying driverless cars, traded futuristic transport and cityscapes for far away worlds. Driverless spaceships are alluded to, but the tech that stops mega structures hurtling through space from colliding with each other doesn’t get much screen time.
And although we do have unmanned vehicle ferrying supplies and people up to the International Space Station, they’re still under full control of humans for 99% of the time, so we’re still quite far off spacecraft that can make their own decisions.
The smart tech: flying, semi-autonomous car with human control
Has it come true? Well, yeah, except for the flying part
Even the incredible Lexus RC F that appeared in Men in Black International last year, a slick upgrade of the Ford Crown Victoria seen in the original films, was ho-hum from a driverless perspective.
Yes, it could convert into a flying car, and yes, the red button made for probably the best sports mode in the universe, but where was the fun ‘autopilot’ from the first Men in Black movie? And with all that alien tech, how come Agent H still had to hold the wheel for most of the film? That technology definitely already exists! Even the driverless ‘hyperloop’ style vehicle that Agent M rides in is nothing new either.
Have we hit a fictional driverless car plateau?
The smart tech:Ultra-realistic driverless cars, and the incredible infrastructure
Has it come true? Not even close
The last time we visited driverless vehicles on screen, trend-setters like Minority Report and I, Robot created driverless cars and driverless infrastructure that were not only way ahead of their time, but are still the most talked about portrayals of driverless cars to this day.
Almost two decades on, it seems we’re just repeating the same ideas. These movies are way more memorable than anything mentioned so far in this article.
There could be three factors for this lack of innovation; something we really haven’t seen before being dreamt up by writers and set designers.
- Are we at a point where driverless cars are so close, they’ve stopped being a sci-fi fantasy?
- Is our interest in driverless cars waning?
- Are Hollywood directors becoming lazy?
For us, it could be a bit of all three. We’re still waiting for a ‘real’, level three driverless car to hit the market, something which should be happening in the next five years even though this was regarded as overpromising by most from the beginning. Maybe we got bored of waiting, and 007’s old, manual DB9 is more exciting right now?
Is driverless close enough to make it less exciting than fantasy?
On the other side of the coin, we’re also seeing plenty of ‘driverless’ cars, buses, trains and other vehicles appearing in cities across the world, even if the limits are severe and the level of autonomy restricted. We’re certainly a lot closer now than 12 months ago, but we’re still very much in the ‘tech phase’, which means we’re getting there, but the progress isn’t as exciting as futuristic shapes and cutting-interior updates. However, if it exists, even in a slightly duller form, it’s not really sci-fi anymore.
Maybe movie makers just don’t feel driverless cars are as ‘cool’ as they were when Tom Cruise was battling his way across a 20-something lane highway on the side of a skyscraper in Minority report. Perhaps the image of a student tapping away at a laptop in the passenger seat, as a family car makes its way around a testing course at 20km/h just isn’t getting filmmakers, and therefore audiences excited?
However, we still think filmmakers are being a little lazy. Where are the human-friendly, tech-packed interiors designed for work, rest and play seen in the already-existent driverless cars like the Cruise Origin?
Or maybe it’s because we’ve actually caught up with our futuristic fantasies. If driverless technology advances are outstripping our imaginations, then what should filmmakers be thinking about next? Teleportation?
Have we missed any fictional driverless cars from the last 12 months? Have you got any great driverless technology ideas that would enhance a movie? Let us know your opinion in the comments section or on our social media channels
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