How Well Did Knight Rider Predict Autonomous Vehicles?
One of my favorite bits on the No Parking podcast goes like this: no matter what the guest is talking about, I try to bend the conversation toward science fiction, and my co-host Bryan bends it back to science fact. That’s because Bryan is the founder of Argo AI, and I’m still lamenting my unsold Star Trek fanfic screenplay, which my mom loves to bring up during our weekly Zoom calls.
“Maybe,” she shakes her head, “if you had spent more time studying like Bryan instead of watching those stupid shows—”
“MOM. Some of those shows were really good—”
“—like Knight Riding and—”
“Knight Rider, mom. Knight Rider.”
And then I froze, the reflection in my laptop screen resembling a life-sized think-face-emoji. Knowing what we now know about autonomous vehicles, what if Knight Rider was really good?
What is the difference between science fiction and science fact? Time. People have been making fun of Knight Rider for more than 30 years, but most people (including myself) haven’t watched it since its 1986 cancellation. Two days and one unhappy girlfriend later, I was no longer one of these people. Then I called up my friend Jason Torchinsky, resident genius at Jalopnik.com, to come on the podcast to discuss his recent analysis of the classic show.
The verdict was clear. Time had proven Knight Rider to be far more real than we thought. Compared to other vehicle-tech shows of the 1980s, the team behind Knight Rider look like the descendants of Nostradamus. Street Hawk was just a low-tech Knight Rider-on-a-motorcycle. Automan was just Tron with worse effects and music. Even Airwolf — one of my favorite shows as a kid — was just a helicopter with a cool paint job and “whisper” mode.
But if you’d launched a venture capital fund in 2000 investing only in technologies from Knight Rider, you’d be a billionaire today.
For those who haven’t seen it, Knight Rider was a hugely popular show that ran on NBC from 1982 to 1986. It starred David Hasselhoff, who rose to even greater fame on Baywatch, but the real star of the show was K.I.T.T., or Knight Industries Two Thousand, a nearly indestructible talking car, packed to the gills with every conceivable technology, and cleverly disguised as a black Pontiac Trans Am.
Plot? Everything you need to know is summed up in the Season 1 opening credit voiceover:
“Knight Rider, a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist.
Michael Knight, a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, in a world of criminals who operate above the law.”
Let’s get into how much Knight Rider got right about the future of autonomous vehicles…
Basic driver assistance like anti-lock brakes and traction control existed in the early 80s, but they sure weren’t standard. Incredibly, 1982 K.I.T.T. is equipped with literally everything you’d find in the top-of-the-line car you can buy today, from dynamic stability control to automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection. If Michael Knight was about to make a mistake behind the wheel, K.I.T.T. wouldn’t let him.
Occupant Monitoring System
If Michael Knight was injured or drowsy — or drugged, say, by the bad guy of the week — K.I.T.T. detected it via a cabin-facing camera and took control within a millisecond to prevent a crash.
But that was only possible because K.I.T.T. was also capable of actual…
If Michael Knight wanted to climb out of the driver’s window at 50mph and jump onto the bed of a pickup to engage a gang of bad guys in bloodless hand-to-hand combat — hey, it was a family show — he could. K.I.T.T. was autonomous, meaning no one had to be in the driver’s seat at all.
Amusingly, both K.I.T.T. and Knight were aware that K.I.T.T.’s driving was safer than that of his human friend, which is why K.I.T.T. would get so annoyed when Knight took over.
K.I.T.T.’s artificial intelligence was the difference between driver assistance and the autonomy that made for a great show. Give K.I.T.T. a destination or a task, and he’d figure out the best way to get there and do it. Drive to X, open the door, pick up so-and-so, and come back? No problem. You still can’t buy a car that can do that, but we’re a lot closer to robotaxi service today than when Knight Rider pioneered the idea.
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Through rain, smoke, day, night, or total darkness, K.I.T.T.’s sensors could see even when Knight couldn’t. The reason K.I.T.T. could safely execute those wild maneuvers at almost any speed? Next generation sensors. The show’s creators called K.I.T.T.’s primary sensor an “Anamorphic Equalizer,” which alludes to what it looked like but says absolutely nothing about how it worked. The red light that swept horizontally back-and-forth across the front of the K.I.T.T.’s hood apparently allowed him to “see” in all visual wavelengths, as well as X-Ray and infrared.
The show isn’t clear about how K.I.T.T. detected vehicles and people to the sides or rear, but one must assume a variety of camera, radar, ultrasonic, thermal, and lidar sensors covered the 270 degrees the Anamorphic Equalizer didn’t.
Knight could summon K.I.T.T. via a gold pendant, but today we have the luxury of not having to wear jewelry to do the same thing. A smartphone and app are all you need, and autonomous ride-hailing is being tested by several companies right now.
Although electric cars have been around for over a century, K.I.T.T.’s super secret drivetrain was an electric-hybrid capable of using hydrogen or regular gas. This made a lot of sense, because the electrical power required to operate today’s state-of-the-art autonomous driving AI would likely tax even the best in on-board battery technology.
Maintenance and Upgrades
Knight frequently drove his car onto the back of a moving semi, which is where K.I.T.T. received his (weekly?) maintenance, and semi-annual (seasonal?) upgrades. This also makes perfect sense, since autonomous vehicle technologies are complex, and daily use under hard conditions means frequent calibration is necessary to maintain peak performance. K.I.T.T. evolved over several seasons, the biggest leap being “Super Pursuit Mode,” which required significant hardware and software updates. Robotaxi design is still evolving, but continuous improvements through software updates and regular service for optimal performance is here to stay.
Things didn’t always go right for Knight, which is why sometimes he had to call his friends at F.L.A.G. (Foundation for Law and Government) for help. Cell phones didn’t exist in the world of Knight Rider, but K.I.T.T. was able to instantly connect Knight with the help he needed at the touch of a button, which is the same functionality we’re going to see when robotaxis are available to the public.
Here’s what Knight Rider got wrong…
Lack of Redundancy
Knock out K.I.T.T.s “Anamorphic Equalizer” and performance was… substantially degraded. Apparently no one in 1982 thought of equipping the car with redundant sensors, which makes no sense. Autonomous vehicles need some way of coming to a safe stop if, say, a rock knocks out a key sensor. This means redundancy, not just for sensors, but braking, steering, and computing hardware and software too.
Hacking and Cybersecurity
Of all the inaccurate depictions of automotive hacking, Knight Rider’s are among the worst. There are too many examples to get into, but these cybersecurity experts did a fun analysis of the 1983 hacking episode “Soul Survivor.” It’s a fun watch.
Yes, a black Pontiac Trans Am may have been cool to 11-year-old Alex in 1982, but it was actually a terrible car for its intended purpose, which was investigations, stealth, and occasionally transporting goods and people. As Torchinsky points out, what you want is a reliable crossover or SUV with a ready supply of affordable spare parts that easily blends in, with easy ingress and egress. (He defends his official pick this week on No Parking, and it’s great.)
So final thoughts?
Having lived and breathed Knight Rider for several days, I was thrilled to learn how much thought went into a network television show most people remember as mindless entertainment. Other than Star Trek, I can’t think of any other old science fiction shows that have improved so much with time, at least on a technological level.
Science fiction, like technology, is only as good as we choose it to be. If you’re going to read or watch it, make sure it’s hard science fiction, rooted in the possible, and inspired to make the world a better place.
How well did Knight Rider predict the future?
Let’s give it a ROYSCORE. I say…7.5
How did I come up with 7.5? This column only tells part of the story. Stay tuned, because I’ve got a whole methodology I’m working on, and if you want to learn more about the relationship between science fiction and science fact, you’re going to love what’s coming.