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Rise of the robot cars: Driverless vehicles in the movies (Part 2)

How accurately does Hollywood predict the driverless future? (Photo: nadla/iStock)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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The audience demanded a sequel: in the second part of our movie talk, engineer Andree Hohm explains why "I, Robot" might have anticipated the HMI of the future – and why the ideal traffic system will not resemble the one depicted in "Minority Report".

Demolition Man (1993, set in 2032)

2025 AD: We found Demolition Man to be quite an astonishing movie in that it predicted self-driving cars quite accurately in 1993. Would you agree?

Hohm: There are several remarkable aspects about this movie, starting with the appearance of the vehicles. They all look pretty similar and provide less emotionality than automobiles on our roads today. This leads to a fundamental question: will the cars of the future just be tools to get from A to B? In my opinion, there will still be a huge demand for cars that help you express a part of your personality. Another remarkable element is the human-machine-interface (HMI) used in those cars, because it is very realistic.

2025 AD: When in autonomous mode, the steering wheel contracts, signalizing that the vehicle is driving itself. It expands again when the driver uses the command “self drive on”.

Hohm: This is one of the biggest challenges that car manufacturers face: a seamless transition between automated and manual mode. This movie is a nice example for a smooth handover between machine and human. This is a very exciting concept. It still leaves the owner the choice to drive manually or to override the autonomous mode. When we think of the year 2032, I find this to be a realistic prognosis. 

2025 AD: The car in Demolition Man uses so-called biolinks. It identifies who is sitting behind the wheel and automatically adjusts the settings. Weight, height and peripheral perception of the driver are taken into account. Can we expect such customization in the cars of the future?

Hohm: The movie certainly takes a very extreme stance on this. But it is reasonable to expect some of those elements. The more we know about the driver, the better we can support him. A good example is the technology that detects the attentiveness of the driver and alerts him to potential hazards on the road. This will soon be part of series vehicles. Another possibility is to deploy sensors into the car that recognize characteristics of the driver – and then automatically adjust mirrors, headrests or the seat.

2025 AD: Possibly the key to preventing car theft?

Hohm: If we can observe weight, height or interocular distance of the driver we can decide if the person behind the wheel is authorized at all to drive the car. It is a plausible scenario that such a function might replace a car key in the future. It obviously raises questions of data protection. But I am sure that we can solve this challenge and ensure that the driver decides who can have access to his data.

2025 AD: There’s a scene in the movie where Sylvester Stallone, who comes from the past, insists in a typically macho way that he will drive. When he can’t cope with the modern technology, he admits defeat and Sandra Bullock takes over. Is this in some way telling?

Hohm: That is an indication that we will move away from the standardization of vehicles that we know today. Someone who learned to drive a car 30 years ago would still be able to steer a contemporary vehicle without any major problems. That is because we have a high degree of standardization. Brakes and accelerator, gear lever and steering wheel: the basic elements are similar in every vehicle. With automation increasing, that is likely to change. The goal must be that you will still be able to operate every car in the future, therefore the handling must be self-explanatory. Clearly, in Demolition Man the industry has not fully succeeded in this.

I, Robot (2004, set in 2035)

2025 AD: I, Robot is set in the same decade as Demolition Man. Yet the makers of this movie took a different approach on self-driving cars. How do they compare?

Hohm: The functionalities are comparable. Just like in Demolition Man, the vehicles here can either drive autonomously or be driven manually. The fundamental difference in I,Robot is that people still have an emotional relationship to those vehicles. The Audi that Will Smith drives is definitely not just a tool to get from A to B. It is a very sportive vehicle with attractive interior.  Those films form the two ends of a spectrum.

2025 AD: Yet, in I, Robot the self-driving mode has become the new norm. In one scene, Will Smith horrifies his female co-driver by switching into manual mode on the highway. It seems that, in the movie, society considers manual driving to be reckless while self-driving mode is considered safe. Can you see this shift actually happening?

Hohm: I would not rule it out for a very distant future, but I deem it rather unlikely. Interestingly, Tesla’s Elon Musk has predicted that manual driving will eventually be outlawed because it will be considered too dangerous. But in my opinion, there will always be a symbiosis between those two modes. Exclusively relying on autonomous driving does not meet the needs of many drivers to whom driving means much more than the simple transport of people.

2025 AD: When it comes to parking, I, Robot showcases a remarkable approach. The driver parks the vehicle in a designated zone. A hatch in the wall opens and the car is automatically sucked into a giant parking garage where cars are being stored vertically – talk about stacking them high! A reality by 2035?

Hohm: What we see is a specific form of automated valet parking. It is already technologically possible today to hand over your car to a system which automatically parks the vehicle.  Cars can be parked much closer to each other since no one has to enter or get out of the car. So parking is definitely becoming more space-efficient. Once this technology leaves the experimental stage, we are not too far away from the system shown in the movie. Parking cars vertically is tricky, though. Cars of today are not built for that. In the concrete case, fuel would probably run out of the tank.

2025 AD: What are your thoughts on the depiction of Augmented Reality in the movie? In manual mode, it serves to assist the driver, displaying important information onto the windshield – like the speed or distance to the car in front. In self driving mode the windshield turns into an in-car cinema or office! The driver is completely cut off from the events on the road.

Hohm: This is a very realistic depiction. A human-machine interface on the windshield is already part of series vehicles today. If we achieve an intuitive HMI to display driver assistance systems, manual driving will be safe and competitive to autonomous driving for a very long time. At the same time, it appears probable that by 2035, we will have scenarios where the passengers can hand over driving entirely to the machine and enjoy on-board entertainment. So it makes sense to use the windshield for both: driver assistance and amusement.

Minority Report (2002, set in 2054)

2025 AD: Last but not least: Minority Report. What is striking about this dystopian thriller by Steven Spielberg?

Hohm: We experience a radical turn away from the traffic system we know today. Vehicles are no longer owned individually. Instead, they resemble self-driving taxis or shared cars that pick you up right at your door. The system appears to be very efficient and features fascinating approaches like cars moving vertically to get to a desired arterial road. I think this kind of mobility will play a bigger role in the future, but not in this exclusivity. People will still want the vehicle as an individual living space. A place where I can leave personal stuff, where my children’s toys lie ready-to-hand at the backseat.

2025 AD: The driverless vehicles in the film move as if by magic.  Presumably they are controlled by some central authority or they organize themselves through some sort of swarm intelligence. Which do you reckon could take off as the autonomous traffic system of the future?

Hohm: I think that we will always have a combination of both. We will need a central instance that monitors the big picture: where are the traffic hot spots? how many cars are on the road? how do they have to be distributed to ensure the ideal flow of traffic? This is intelligence that single cars do not have. But vehicles also need to be able to react to certain situations individually, for instance avoiding objects or people that suddenly enter the road. Some intelligence always needs to remain in the car.

2025 AD: In the movie, Tom Cruise is trying to escape in a car. But the police have no trouble locating him and even take over remote control of his driverless vehicle, forcing him to jump out of it. Will autonomous driving open up completely new possibilities for law enforcement?

Hohm: I am very critical of such an external control because it is seriously interfering with the personal freedoms of drivers. We should not make use of everything that might be technologically feasible. I expect controversial discussions on this topic like we have them today regarding mobile phone data. The driver needs to stay in charge. He decides whether his car runs autonomously or manually. And if he wants to switch off automation entirely, he is free to do so.

2025 AD: We’ll let you have the last word: How is Hollywood doing when it comes to automated driving?

Hohm: Kudos! I think Hollywood has developed fascinating visions that entertain and at the same time serve as an inspiration for engineers. Watching how creative minds envision the mobility of the future is incredibly exciting

What do you think: how accuretaly is Hollywood predicting driverless cars? Discuss in the comments section!

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