Culture Crush

Sentient Cars

A look at the lives and lessons of 5 fictional automobiles—each with a mind of its own.

Humans are thrilled and terrified by new technologies, but in our car-centric culture there’s a special place for automobiles that think for themselves. With driverless cars seemingly right around the corner, we decided to take a look at five famously sentient motorcars. As fickle and fallible as any driver, these automobiles move on their own, make decisions, and express a human range of emotion. They also provide a strange glimpse into what intelligent automobiles might have in store.

KITT

The dream of the technologically-sentient, ultra-advanced automobile might best be reflected in KITT, the car-star of 80’s TV series Knight Rider. In the show, the fictional KITT was created by a billionaire with a passion for vigilante justice, which, considering today’s Silicon Valley luminaries, doesn’t sound all that outlandish. The car was a heavily enhanced Pontiac Firebird Trans Am with “self aware” artificial intelligence that meant it could not only drive itself and perform remarkable feats such as lie detection and tear gas-dispensing, but could also make witty banter in an elegant British accent. The lesson: if cars are going to start talking more, they might as well sound like Principal Feeny.

Christine

The most dangerous and terrifying of our autonomous examples, Christine is the twisted and murderous 1958 Plymouth Fury at the heart of Stephen King’s 1983 novel of the same name. Christine can self-heal after sustaining injuries colliding with her victims, can influence the mind of her owner, and drive out on her own to hunt down the individuals that she begrudges. In Christine, King tapped into the latent fear that our technologies might one day control us. Given that McKinsey & Co has calculated that self-driving cars could eliminate 90% of auto accidents, that actually might not be such a bad thing. As long as our new cars aren’t possessed by evil spirits, that is.

Susie

We could read Susie’s story as a parable for the car in our current maker culture. Created by Walt Disney Studios in 1952, the animated Susie (which would eventually inspire an entire universe of anthropomorphic car-toons) is flirtatious and peppy in her youth, but eventually worn down, sold, stolen, and wrecked. Redemption comes in the form of a young tinkerer who soups-up Susie and gets her back out on the road. Car hackers are already taking advantage of new built-in automotive technologies to innovate battery technology. There’s no telling how they might enhance and rebuild the cars of the future. Maybe tomorrow’s tinkerers will even retrofit existing automobiles with intelligent tech.

Herbie

Another Disney car, Herbie starred in a series of live-action films beginning with the 1968 feature The Love Bug. Though the VW’s sentience was never fully explained, Herbie could drive himself, fall in love, and win a race even after being cut in half. Herbie couldn’t talk verbally, but he had an emotionally expressive personality. The idea of nonverbal car-communication might prove informative for the interface design of new vehicles. While speech-commands are great, there’s an untapped potential in considering motion-based and visual cues beyond displaying speed and mileage.

MARV

The only car in our collection that exists in real life, MARV (aka the Mobile Automated Research Vehicle) was created for Welcome to College, a company that helps high schoolers organize campus visits. MARV has visited more than 162 universities in the US, attracting attention with his conversation, wacky dancing, confetti cannons, and prizes. MARV’s got a funny and sarcastic personality: telling jokes, playing games, and asking new friends about everything from college life to financial aid and dorm food. The lesson from MARV? Whatever impressive technology Google or Tesla or Mercedes puts into their new autonomous models, the new cars better have a playful side.

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