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Nostalgia-Driven: Batman’s Voice Activated Batmobile

In this recurring series, Ground Truth explores iconic technology throughout pop culture history that left an indelible impression about the future of artificial intelligence and what self-driving could become. Not necessarily the most capable robots or flashiest driverless cars, but the ones that connected most deeply with us and remain parked in our brains forever.

As a child of the late 1980s/early 1990s, I was obsessed with Batman — especially the Tim Burton movies Batman and Batman Returns. I even dressed like Batman for Halloween at least three or four years in a row.

As an adult, I’m a bit more critical of the character and his willingness as a hyper wealthy heir to deploy his significant capital on his own vigilante crime-fighting efforts rather than, you know, more community-focused, less violent social programs in his fictional hometown of Gotham City. 

Nonetheless, I continue to be fascinated by Batman’s incredible array of imaginary custom technology, from his gold colored utility belt full of crime-fighting tricks like smoke bombs and grappling hooks, to his batarangs (bat-shaped throwing stars/boomerangs), to the large computers and criminal database in his batcave. And perhaps most interesting to me among Batman’s arsenal, especially now that I work at an autonomous vehicle tech company, is his primary ride, the Batmobile. 

The Batmobile appears in nearly every fictional property that features Batman in a lead role, from comics to movies and TV to video games. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that the Batmobile is as integral to the character of Batman as his costume or secret identity, Bruce Wayne. It’s truly that important to the mythology. But it took a while to become the car we know and love today.

Batman’s first ride in his debut comic issue, Detective Comics #27, released in May 1939, was actually an ordinary red passenger car reminiscent of a Rolls Royce Phantom or Talbot Lago of the time period. It wasn’t until two years later when Batman got his own comic line that the Batmobile fully embraced the core  design that has persisted to this day — a long, low-slung, mostly black colored vehicle with bat wing-like trunk fins. That design first appeared in Batman issue #5. 

Early Comics Batmobile - Photo credit: Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson / DC Comics / Wikimedia Commons

This Batmobile also had a prominent bat head hood ornament, almost like a snow plow or cowcatcher on a locomotive. It was made of bulletproof reinforced glass and steel, and could be used to ram other enemy vehicles, according to the website Batman Factor. Other than that, it did not have a ton of custom tools or technology.

Since then, the Batmobile has undergone countless redesigns in comics, TV, movies and video games, evolving along with Batman’s costume, arsenal, and the various storylines the character has been thrust into. Many of the artists, writers, and filmmakers who worked on the character put their own spin on his vehicle. The Batmobile has gone from zany, outlandish and impractical to dark and fearsome to everything in between. As our own real world vehicular technology has progressed, the Batmobile has itself become more realistic and plausible. 

The Batmobile received perhaps its most significant upgrade in February 1950 in Detective Comics #156. In this issue, the Batmobile is totalled by evildoers who’d rigged a bomb to a bridge. Batman’s leg is also crushed and takes weeks to heal. But he makes good use of the time by rebuilding the Batmobile and adding more of the built-in advancements we now associate with the car, including a mobile crime lab. The lab contained “tables, chemicals, scientific equipment, and more,” according to the website DC Universe Infinite. One advance that’s still lacking, in keeping with many cars of the time: no seat belts for the driver or passengers. 

In 1965, the Batmobile was shown to have a uniquely powerful microphone that could pick up a person’s rapid heartbeats, which supposedly indicated a suspect engaging in criminal activity. It’s a silly, almost pseudoscientific idea, but the overarching technology — analyzing sound to try and identify crimes — is actually being used today by many police departments, namely through gunshot sound detection programs like ShotSpotter

By the 1990s, Batman’s car contained the cutting-edge communications tools of the time: an onboard computer, fax machine, and internet modem. 

The 1990s are also when the Emmy-award winning Batman: The Animated Series premiered on TV with a Batmobile that was shown, during the course of the series, to possess all manner of helpful crime-fighting tools: armor plating, ejection seats, smoke dispensers, tear gas dispensers, oil slick dispensers, retractable hubcap blades for slashing enemy tires, missiles, grappling hooks, and more. 

Though it had a jet engine exhaust for moments of extreme acceleration, the sounds it made when driving most of the time were more similar to that of a piston engine, according to Batman Factor

In cinema, the Batmobile followed a similar progression from goofy to grounded, from the red and black 1955 Lincoln Futura in the slapstick 1960s live action series starring Adam West … 

The "Adam West" Batmobile - Photo Credit: Jennifer Graylock/Ford Motor Company/ Flickr CC-by-2.0

… to the heavy, tank-like “Tumbler” Batmobile seen in Christopher Nolan’s early 2000s Batman film trilogy.

Christopher Nolan's "Tumbler" Batmobile -Photo credit: Praytino/Flickr/CC-by-2.0

For the Tumbler in particular, production designer Nathan Crowley said in a recent interview over at movie site Collider that the inspiration came from combining a Lamborghini with a Humvee, and was one of the earliest elements that he and filmmaker Christopher Nolan approached together — informing the technically plausible look and feel of the rest of the movie.

Basically, however your personal car style trends, there’s a Batmobile for that. 

For me, it remains the Batmobile seen in Tim Burton’s Batman movie from 1989, in no small part due to the fact that it was probably the first time I saw, on screen and in live-action, a car driving by itself.

It’s just a quick scene among many in a genre-defining movie, but at one point midway through the film, our hero parks his Batmobile in the middle of one of Gotham’s many crime-infested streets, leaves it behind to go rescue reporter Vicky Vale, and remotely activates a series of scalloping armored plated shields, preventing anyone from tampering with or damaging it.

Batman needs to get back into the car with Vale quickly and whisk them both to safety, but there are bad guys in the way. So what does he do in this situation? He pulls out a small stick that appears to be a voice-control device and verbally commands the Batmobile to drive toward them on its own, without anyone behind the wheel. It does so flawlessly, though Batman allows it to get disconcertingly close to him and Vale before growling “stop” in his icy cold voice. 

The Tim Burton Batmobile was first sketched out by Julian Caldow, a concept artist working under Anton Furst. The team won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction for their work on the 1989 film. 

For the design inspiration behind the ‘89 Batmobile, Caldow said he drew upon a unique combination of both imagined and real world references. As he told Brick Fanatics, a Lego fan site, last year:

I started looking at the American land speed record cars that have always fascinated me. There was one vehicle called the Green Monster (image below) and its got this enormous single intake with this spike coming out of it…Basically, it’s a rocket – that is where the inspiration for that came from.

Tim Burton's Batmobile was inspired by a car named Green Monster. Photo credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Reading Caldow’s quotes is quite a cyclical experience for me: he was openly inspired by the vehicles he found cool as a child to create a new vehicle design for the Batmobile. Caldow’s Batmobile then went on to inspire children like myself, who are now adults working at real world vehicle tech companies. 

Interestingly, neither Caldow nor anyone else has given any lengthy statements about the ‘89 Batmobile’s autonomous driving capabilities that I could find. 

But the Batmobile driving itself down Gotham’s dark, seedy streets is a moment that sticks with me ever since I first saw it in Batman, one that fit unquestionably well with the rest of the hero’s ultra hi-tech possessions, a display of extraordinary powers that was at the time well beyond the reach of normal people.

What’s really cool to me is that Batman’s ability to benefit from autonomous driving will soon become a reality, thanks to companies like Argo AI — even though no batsuit or utility belt is included (unfortunately). 

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