With flux capacitors, flying cars and remote controls with a license to thrill, when Hollywood starts designing cars, reality is often the first casualty. But come to think of it, some of those crazy film-set inventions are now out on the road.
Germany, 1997, and we’re in a parking garage in downtown Hamburg. A group of heavily-armed men are standing around a brand new 7-series BMW. It’s owner is on his haunches, hidden between other parked cars. He pulls a cellphone from his jacket pocket, and taps the touchpad twice to start the engine by remote control from a safe distance. Using the cellphone screen he steers the car around the garage, tyres squealing, then remotely opens the rear windows and launches himself onto the back seat as the car speeds by. Hunkered down out of sight, he continues to drive the car with the cellphone before leaping out again just before it smashes through a boundary wall and sails downwards across Hamburg’s Mönckebergstraße, crashing neatly through the plate glass window of a car rental firm. A mad car chase with high-tech gadgets and a perfectly-groomed super-hero? There can be only one name for the BMW driver – and yes, it’s Bond. James Bond.
In 1997, having Pierce Brosnan, alias James Bond, use his cellphone to control a car in “Tomorrow Never Dies” was nothing short of sensational. At the time, remote control for cars was the stuff of science fiction. No longer. Today almost all leading automakers and suppliers are working on the development of autonomous driving systems. For several years now it’s been possible to park (and retrieve) Mercedes or BMW models, for example, by means of an app. And quite a few modern-day cars can reverse into parallel parking spaces almost entirely without driver intervention. So to that extent, Bond director Roger Spottiswoode can claim visionary status – like many of his colleagues in Hollywood. In fact, it’s hard to keep count of the blockbuster films that have introduced us to futuristic aspects of driving that have since become reality.
In “Minority Report”, Steven Spielberg’s 2002 box-office hit, Tom Cruise, alias Chief John Anderton, appears in a futuristic car and he’s on the run. The concept car from automaker Lexus can drive down vertical walls – this is 2054 after all – and has no steering wheel, no gas pedal and no brakes. An onboard computer takes over the driving – and at the command of one of the bad guys, locks our hero into the car. This leaves Anderton with no option but to kick out the rear window in truly analog style and escape from the speeding vehicle. A car with no steering wheel? Now where have we seen that before? In 2014, Google presented a concept car also capable of autonomous driving and with no means of intervention for its human occupants. Today, autonomous driving is one of the automobile industry’s key megatrends.
Hollywood was quick to spot the potential of a driverless future… In “The 6th Day” released in 2000, Arnold Schwarzenegger drives a van that steers itself and has an automatic lane-keeping system. The two occupants engage in animated conversation without so much as a glance at the road – thanks to a whole array of driver assistance systems.
Today, lane-keeping assistants are built into many cars from mid-range upward. Then there was KITT, the self-driving 1983 Pontiac Trans Am Firebird from the “Knight Rider” series. Back in the 1980s, millions of teenagers could think of nothing they wanted more. KITT not only drove itself, but thanks to an inbuilt sarcasm chip could also converse with its owner, played by David Hasselhoff. Since then, voice control has stepped out of the world of sci-fi and into our lives, with Siri and co the rightful successors to the likes of KITT.
Even the craziest car designer in the history of the silver screen – Doc Emmett Brown from “Back to the Future” – was not all that far from reality in his visions of the automotive future. True, so far no one has come up with the equivalent of his time-travel-facilitating flux capacitor, but alternative drive systems are today one of the core topics for the auto industry. Charging stations, fuel cells and biogas – these are the renewable resources of today, distant relatives, maybe, of the banana skin that director Robert Zemeckis has Doc Brown feed his DeLorean DMC-12 as part 1 of the trilogy (1985-1990) draws to a close and they head back to the future.
That’s not to say that every sci-fi-style automotive invention has made it into the real world. We’re still waiting for helicopter cars (“Superbug – the Craziest Car in the World”, 1975), flying taxis (“The Fifth Element”, 1997) and cars with built-in motorbikes (“The Dark Knight”, 2008). But how does the saying go? All things come to those who wait.