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Nostalgia-Driven: James Bond’s Driverless Car in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’

In a new series, Ground Truth explores iconic technology throughout pop culture history that left an indelible impression about the future of automation 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.

Flashback to 1997: A year when pre-teen Millennial nerds like yours truly were playing Star Wars Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight on chunky gray Compaq PCs tethered together with cables in their parents’ offices, (LAN parties FTW!) and Pierce Brosnan was James Bond.

Countless other kids in households with similarly libertine movie viewing rules had already seen Goldeneye, Brosnan’s debut as Bond. This cinematic gem, with its great tank chase scene along with the iconic Nintendo 64 video game it inspired, had my generation hyped for the release of Tomorrow Never Dies, Brosnan’s sophomore take as 007.

Tomorrow Never Dies turned out to be not especially memorable, beyond a few large action set pieces and some sharp performances. But one thing that does stand out clearly to this day, nearly a quarter century later, is Bond’s car in the outing: a silver BMW 750iL

Of course, it’s far more than a stock car. Upgraded by loyal Bond gadgeteer Q, it came with onboard machine guns, missiles, smoke dispensers, bullet-proof siding and windows, re-inflating tires, and perhaps most importantly for our purposes on Ground Truth —  it could be driven remotely by the touchpad on Bond’s mobile phone. 

According to the official 007 website, it took a small army of movie production specialists and no less than 17 different identical cars to pull off the BMW’s star moment — a battle and chase scene through a multi-story parking garage:

“On June 9, a production team of 65 people set about capturing the scene in a multi-storey car park at Brent Cross Shopping Centre in England doubling for Hamburg. The two-minute action sequence took three weeks to shoot, using both first and second units, the latter under the supervision of director Vic Armstrong. 

“I wanted to make the car park chase different to what you normally see,” said Armstrong. “Rather than go bigger, it’s better to add some canny little twists to it. Here, the saving grace is the humour. At the same time, you must have it within the realm of believability. It’s a difficult line to walk.”

A few months ago, an automotive YouTuber named Supercar Blondie got a close-up look of one of the prop BMWs from Tomorrow Never Dies and showed us clearly how it really worked, with a human driver crouched in the backseat to give the appearance of a driverless vehicle. The  production team created an ingenuous custom driving setup, elongating the pipes connecting the car’s pedals to the brakes and engine to allow for this literal “backseat driver” to have full control of the vehicle. They also added a whole separate braking system and pedal for the back wheels only, which is how the car could drift around corners on a dime in the film: 

It’s hard to overstate how mindblowing this vehicle was when it appeared in the movie. Remember (all those who are old enough): 1997 was the era when cell phones were still chunky black-and-white screened plastic bricks barely good enough to take audio calls on, let alone surf a then-nascent internet. And forget about taking photos or videos or streaming any music. The first, now-primitive, iPhone with its still-images-only camera wouldn’t emerge until a decade later. 

So to a 10-year-old’s eyes, watching Bond remotely pilot his Beemer with the touch of a finger on his Sony Ericsson handset from the backseat, evading and dispensing bad guys with all the various weaponry and tricks hidden just beneath its classy but banal exterior, was height of “cool.” LIke an RC car made life-sized. 

For many kids back then, it was perhaps the first time they considered a real car driving on the road without someone behind the wheel. 

Even in the context of the film’s heightened reality, Bond’s BMW 750iL is not quite a self-driving car since both he and Q need to manually pilot it via the phone, though it does appear to have some limited autonomy features. 

It’s not the most advanced or smartest vehicle in fiction by a long shot. Fully autonomous vehicles go back to the legends of antiquity with things like Aladdin’s flying carpet, and many other sci-fi films and TV shows. But Tomorrow Never Dies did not take place in a futuristic dystopia or fantastical past. Instead, it gave me a sense of what a seemingly driverless vehicle would look like in our world

These days, true autonomous vehicles are actually hitting the streets, our smartphones can stream all the Bond movies and control many other things in our lives (including aspects of our cars), and James Bond is, at least for one more movie, the talented Daniel Craig.

But for all the ways the world has advanced and changed since 1997, I’ll always covet that remote controlled BMW 750iL. 

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