Nostalgia-Driven: The Autonomous Police Car With an Inflatable Steering Wheel from ‘Demolition Man’
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.
The hit 1993 sci-fi action movie Demolition Man doesn’t get enough credit for its foresight, especially when it comes to autonomous vehicle technology.
Don’t get me wrong: this rambunctious, at times laugh-out-loud funny film was certainly a big success in its day, debuting at number one at the box office on its opening weekend, and it has maintained a passionate fan base ever since.
It’s not without flaws, but among its many endearing qualities are impressively constructed retro-futuristic sets and an undeniably stacked cast that includes Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, Benjamin Bratt, Dennis Leary, and Rob Schneider, to name a few. All of them deliver entertaining, clever, committed performances even through intentionally goofy dialogue during almost sitcom-like interactions.
The main reason why Demolition Man remains a worthy home viewing candidate to me is the innovative design of the film’s autonomous police cars, which can switch between fully autonomous mode and manual driver mode in an instant.
The autonomous police cars were modeled after General Motors’ functional, fuel-efficient concept car Ultralite. They come with steering wheels that inflate and expand to normal size when the car is in manual driving mode, but deflate and contract to a tiny circle in the dashboard when the car is driving itself, reminiscent of the Audi Grandsphere concept that was shown off in the summer of 2021.
One of these autonomous police cars serves a decisive role toward the climax of Demolition Man, during a hand-to-hand combat match between the hero, John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone), and mass-murdering villain Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), who find themselves hanging off the side of the vehicle as it speeds on its own through the streets of San Angeles, the movie’s post-earthquake megacity conglomeration of Los Angeles and San Diego.
But before we get to that tense and thrilling confrontation, and what it gets right and wrong about real-world autonomous technology, allow me to set the stage of Demolition Man in a little more detail.
The movie opens in Los Angeles in the year 1996, depicted here as an over-the-top dystopian, crime-wracked hellscape of barrel fires, wrecked cars, and ruined buildings. After a battle that results in the apparent deaths of 40 hostages, Spartan — nicknamed “Demolition Man” for his destructive tendencies — and Phoenix, are sentenced to imprisonment in ice. They’re supposed to be rehabilitated in their sleep through unconscious, dream-based therapy, but of course, things do not go according to plan (at least not the publicly stated plan). Instead, Phoenix escapes during a parole hearing in 2032 and begins a killing and dismemberment spree in the new megacity of San Angeles, a utopia where crime is virtually non-existent.
In this time of relative peace, the San Angeles Police Department is staffed by officers who are woefully unequipped to respond to a brutally violent felon like Phoenix, except for maybe Sandra Bullock’s character, Lenina Huxley (named after Brave New World author Aldous and one of the dystopian novel’s characters), an avid student of 20th-century crime, policing, and pop culture. John Spartan, of course, is up to the task as well, and he is eventually unfrozen to help the hapless future cops catch Phoenix.
FACT: Modern car dashboards are packed with screens
The first time we see one of Demolition Man’s autonomous police cars in action is about 12 minutes into the film when Huxley is introduced. She’s shown calling the warden of the cryogenic lab/prison on his tablet from inside of her car while it drives itself, using a then-futuristic video calling dashboard.
The car design remains impressively forward-looking even in 2021, with a variety of colored touchscreens and, to the welcome of some frustrated modern drivers, physical controls for air conditioning and heat.
The dashboard, meanwhile, is chunky black and recalls something out Blade Runner or one of the Alien films, almost serpentine and H.R. Gieger-inspired.
FACT: Self-driving vehicles really do have sensor pods
The exterior of the vehicle is sleek and curvaceous, almost pebble-shaped, complete with gullwing doors. In addition to that, it sports what looks almost like a pod for lidar and other sensors on its rooftop!
If you’ve read other stories about real self-driving technology here on Ground Truth, or even seen some of the self-driving test vehicles from Argo AI, where I work, and other companies driving around the streets of your city, you’ll note that the design of this tiara is actually reminiscent of reality. You can read more about what’s in Argo AI’s autonomous vehicle sensor array here and here. In Demolition Man, it’s unclear what’s inside besides emergency lights, but the physical resemblance is pretty uncanny.
FICTION: ‘Self-Drive’ means when a person is driving
When Huxley’s car approaches downtown San Angeles, the car’s computer acknowledges their destination verbally, to which Huxley repliest, “Self-drive on,” commanding the vehicle to return to manual driving.
This is obviously one point that the movie got backward: Modern autonomous vehicle companies refer to “self-driving” as when the car drives itself, but in Demolition Man, “self-drive” is when the human takes over, while “auto-drive” is when the computer is controlling it.
FACT: Some companies are exploring radical changes to steering wheels
When Huxley says “Self-drive on,” the car’s steering console rapidly expands outward, inflating with air and turning into something resembling a typical, full-sized steering wheel. It’s both an amusing sight and kind of ingenious, though in real life, adding this type of capability would likely come with many risks and shortcomings — what happens if it gets punctured or stuck when expanding?
Some real-world self-driving companies have suggested they would pursue new car designs without traditional steering wheels, including Amazon’s subsidiary Zoox, GM’s subsidiary Cruise, and at one point, Google’s Firefly project (prior to becoming Waymo). However, a key safety component of many autonomous test vehicles currently on public roads is that they include human Test Specialists behind an actual steering wheel, ready to take over manual operation instantly, without any voice command or delay.
FACT: Cars can adjust their seat settings automatically
The next time the autonomous police car makes a meaningful appearance in Demolition Man is about 40 minutes into the film, when a whole fleet of them are parked outside the San Angeles Police Station, and Huxley, Spartan, and Benjamin Bratt’s character, officer Alfredo Garcia, get into Huxley’s vehicle.
Spartan says he’ll drive but when he gets into the driver’s seat, the car’s computer begins to calibrate all of the seats, screens, and dashboard settings to his height, weight and peripheral vision — what it calls “biolinks.”
Spartan is alienated by the modern tech, but in reality, it is cool that cars today “remember” seat settings for different drivers and can automatically switch between them.
FICTION: Autonomous vehicles will replace all human-driven ones
The last and most important time the autonomous police car appears for a lengthy period in Demolition Man is about 1 hour and 30 minutes in, when Phoenix emerges from an underground sewer gunfight with Spartan and steals Huxley’s unguarded vehicle. Apparently, these autonomous police cars don’t require keys or authentication of any sort to drive — a seemingly obvious security flaw, but perhaps one that is understandable in the ultra-low crime era of the movie.
Phoenix drives it manually for a while until Spartan and Huxley show up in pursuit driving a classic Oldsmobile, and Spartan jumps onto the back of the stolen police car.
The Oldsmobile is presented as some kind of long-lost relic, but in reality, auto industry experts expect that autonomous cars will share the road with human-driven models for many years to come.
FICTION: An autonomous vehicle breaks the speed limit
As Spartan and Phoenix battle around the moving police car, Phoenix commands the car back into “auto drive,” but does so at a clearly unsafe speed.
This is not possible with safely designed autonomous vehicles in the real world, as they’re coded to follow the posted speed limits.
FICTION: Damage is a big threat to an autonomous vehicle’s computer
Spartan eventually throws Phoenix from the moving car and gets into the driver’s seat, where he attempts to initiate manual control of the vehicle. But the car malfunctions as a result of the damage it’s incurred, so Spartan attempts to control it with his voice. He eventually does get it into manual driving mode, but by then it’s too late and he crashes the car yet is saved by its emergency “secure foam,” a kind of futuristic, liquid airbag.
In reality, the autonomous vehicles designed by Argo AI are designed with two onboard computer systems, a primary and secondary one, both of which are specifically constructed to safely guide the vehicle to a smooth stop in the event of an equipment issue. You can read all about the many safety features in Argo’s safety report.
The crash is the last time we see the autonomous police car in Demolition Man, but the car’s legacy remains imprinted on my mind and I’m sure those of many other viewers. It’s far from the reality of autonomous vehicles today, but it gestured in their general direction and was believable enough to help sell an otherwise outlandish, over-the-top sci-fi movie.