Hollywood and Autonomous Vehicles

How Films, Cartoons, and TV Shows Have Shaped Our AV Biases

A March 2019 AAA survey found that almost three in four Americans remain afraid of fully self-driving vehicles. The survey also noted that the fear had increased year over year and blamed several high profile autonomous vehicle (AV) accidents. Of course, nearly 40,000 people die in “regular” car accidents every year, so maybe there is another culprit. Perhaps we have biases (both good and bad) due to the portrayal of “driverless” vehicles from films, television, and literature.

Self-driving cars have an interesting history in those realms. One of the earlier and most popular portrayals of a driverless car is Disney’s The Love Bug, a 1968 film featuring a lovable (but very sensitive) self-driving 1963 Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of it’s own named Herbie. While the film, its sequels, and a brief TV sitcom fared well at the time, a 2005 Lindsay Lohan attempt at relaunching the franchise wasn’t able to harness that popularity. Could this have been moviegoers’ referendum against self-driving cars as characters?

In Maximum Overdrive (a film based on the Stephen King short story Trucks), trucks take over the world. They destroy smaller cars and turn humans stranded at a truck stop into slaves to keep feeding them the gas they need to survive and rule the world. King directed Maximum Overdrive, ramping up the fear factor by animating everything with an electrical component. All machines, including cars and massive trucks, hunt for humans to the massacre but also enslave. Seeing cars and trucks on-screen without drivers mowing down poor, innocent humans may have left viewers with permanent scars. (The saving grace is that AC/DC created arguably the greatest movie soundtrack ever.)
Where Herbie was endearing and just wanting to be loved, Christine (directed by John Carpenter and based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name) features a ruthless, jealous self-driving 1958 Plymouth Fury with an insatiable appetite for harming anyone she crosses. If you grew up in the 1980s, you likely watched this cult classic multiple times. The film still garners repeated airplay and is widely available on demand. Every time someone watches, another seed of self-driving-car fear is planted.

Not all portrayals of self-driving cars are silly (The Love Bug and Maximum Overdrive) or scary (Maximum Overdrive and Christine). If you were raised in the 1980s, you also likely watched one of the greatest self-driving cars on-screen, KITT, one of the main “characters” in the series Knight Rider. Unlike Herbie’s search for love and Christine’s hunt for bones to crush, KITT was a true hero—not only because he frequently put David Hasselhoff’s Michael Knight character in his place. Indeed, we should all hope that in the future, our police and military personnel will have access to vehicles as powerful and advanced as KITT. Our world would likely be a safer place. Or would it? Perhaps KITT’s advanced powers and capabilities also drive fear of automated vehicles, fear of becoming controlled by machines smarter than humans.

There are numerous other portrayals of driverless cars in films that have probably influenced our imagination concerning the future of transportation. Films like Minority Report, Total Recall immediately come to mind. Hopefully, once AVs become mundane and a typical part of the daily lives conveyed in film, television, and literature, perhaps our fears will dissipate. In the meantime, public transportation—with or without drivers—presents one logical alternative.

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