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Where dreams come alive: driverless cars in the movies (Part 1)

Does Hollywood shape how we envision driverless cars? (Photo: iStock/jcamilobernal)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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Driverless cars have sparked Hollywood’s imagination for decades. But are its depictions of autonomous vehicles realistic – or just pipe dreams? We asked Andree Hohm, leading engineer at Continental, to do a reality check for us. The results are astonishing.

Cars falling in love or casually chatting with their driver – Hollywood lets its imagination run wild when it comes to self-driving cars. Many of those movies have become very popular. But have they also influenced the way the car industry envisions driverless mobility?

Andree Hohm is Head of Lighthouse Program Automated Driving at Continental – and a movie buff at the same time. So with popcorn out and feet up, we sat down to watch some flicks with him. Together we took a closer look at some of the most beloved films depicting future cars and traffic systems. We asked Mr Hohm to evaluate their degree of realism: will these movie dreams one day become reality – or are they already? In the first of two parts, Mr Hohm discusses a VW Beetle with human feelings and a car named KITT that resembles the Tesla Model S in some ways.

2025 AD: Many Hollywood movies and TV series feature automated driving. What’s most interesting about them, when watched through the eyes of an expert like yourself?

Andree Hohm: As an engineer, you have a step-by-step approach to the development process. A movie that takes place in 2050 frees itself from those small steps and shows how the big jump could look like! Hollywood can imagine the traffic system of the future and implement it right away – regardless of technological hurdles that engineers of today face. That’s fascinating!

2025 AD: Hollywood seems to have visionary abilities. Take for instance the communicators used in Star Trek episodes in the 1960s. They resembled modern mobile phones. Is there a mutual influence between Hollywood and the car industry as well? Do engineers really take inspiration from the world of film?

Hohm: I think that is the case. Maybe not directly, but rather subconsciously. We have a film industry that globally shapes expectations of how future mobility will develop. So we have similar perceptions on this topic all around the globe. This informs concrete decisions when it comes to developing actual products. Of course, this also works in the other direction: the car industry and mobility research inspire filmmakers as well.

2025AD: So, let’s take a look at some movies…

Herbie (first movie released in 1969)

2025 AD: Early Hollywood depictions of automated cars show very far-reaching artificial intelligence. Take the much-loved VW Beetle Herbie for example. Here is a vehicle that lives its own life: it falls in love, gets depressed or even drunk. Cars having feelings and human senses; is that a step too far?

Hohm: Movies like Herbie are a reflection of our society’s relation to the car. To many people, the car is more than a machine. They have an intensive, almost intimate relationship to their vehicle. Herbie expands this idea in ascribing human feelings to a car. From an engineer’s point of view, this is interesting – but of course extremely unrealistic. When we talk about artificial intelligence in cars, we think of imitating the human performance when it comes to detecting objects or interpreting complex traffic scenarios. But I do not think we will see machines that have their own free will – and personally I do not think that is desirable, either.

The Car (1977)

2025 AD: Some movies also show the other extreme. In The Car a presumably self-driving vehicle turns evil and terrorizes a small town.

Hohm: That is the logical consequence when you project human characteristics into the car. Just like there are good people, there are evil people. The vehicle represents the complete spectrum of human attributes.

Knight Rider (1982-1986)

2025 AD: Knight Rider became an instant classic in the 1980s. How close to reality is KITT, the self-aware, self-driving car of the show’s star, David Hasselhoff?

Hohm: KITT is a more realistic car than Herbie, for instance, and has features that we will likely experience in the vehicles of the future! KITT is capable of solving complex problems independentlyMichael Knight, played by Hasselhoff, is instructing the vehicle through voice control. That is something we already see partly in today’s series vehicles.

2025 AD: Michael Knight is not only talking to KITT – but the two have a rapport and they interact with each other. A model for our future cars?

Hohm: Bidirectional communication is already possible in today’s vehicles, but that is – admittedly – rather one-dimensional. The driver voices his instructions and if the car has trouble processing this order, it can pose a query. That is within the realms of possibility. But I do not think that we want actual conversations with our cars like Michael Knight has with KITT. A conversation implies that your dialog partner has a free will. Communication with the car should have a strict separation of duties: there is a driver who commands and a vehicle that executes. 

2025 AD: Michael Knight is also able to summon KITT through his smartwatch. Tesla has recently announced a similar feature for its Model S. Will we all feel like David Hasselhoff soon?

Hohm: It is likely that this feature will be introduced step-by-step. KITT’s summon feature works regardless of its whereabouts and of the route that the car has to drive to get to its owner. In reality, we will first see this function in more easily controllable environments, like valet parking.  If you want to extend this function to any desired scenario, the requirements become a lot higher. But once cars drive fully autonomously, a summon feature comparable to KITT will be feasible.

Demolition Man, I, Robot or Minority Report: There’s more to come! Read the SECOND PART of our movie talk with expert Andree Hohm here!

What is your favorite movie that features automated vehicles – and why? Share your thoughts in the comment section!

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