Driverless cars in Sci-Fi movies

Sat Feb 14, 2015

Cars are so integral to American culture, that it’s no surprise they often appear in Hollywood movies about the future. But with self-driving cars rapidly gaining traction (sorry) in the public imagination, we are getting a better idea of what a realistic future of autonomous vehicles may look like. So, the question is, which science fiction movies got it right, and who got it wrong?

Before we can answer this question, we need to establish a few things.

Firstly, we need to determine a plausible future date where the majority of vehicles on the road will be autonomous. Navigant, a market research think tank, has studied the emerging technology of self-driving cars and has concluded that by 2035, at least 75 percent of all cars sold will be autonomous. So, let’s go with that general time frame as the future date when self-driving cars are more or less mainstream.

Secondly, we will be focusing exclusively on American science fiction movies, so any depictions of self-driving cars in other genres or mediums is out. So, no Christine, arguably the most terrifying depiction of a driverless car. And no Benny the Cab from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or Herby, even if they are pretty cute sentient cars. And, although Kitt from Knight Rider is actually a pretty realistic autonomous vehicle, he appears on television. But Kitt is still awesome, even if the 80s are long gone, so it would be remiss not to mention him.

Thirdly, the science fiction movie in question should sincerely attempt to depict our future society, although there is room for some artistic license of course. The movie is usually set in a specific year, so that will be taken into account when comparing the depicted year with our proposed 2035 date.

Who got it wrong:

Here are the movies that didn’t quite hit the mark (in chronological order).

Timecop (set in 2004)


The voice-controlled driverless cars in Timecop not only look hideous but arrived too early in our timeline. We didn’t even have the iPhone in 2004.

Interstellar (set in 2034)


Okay, so 2034 is one year shy of our 2035 date. But, still. I find it hard to believe the amazing aerospace tech shown in the movie, as well as the tech in autonomous drones, and fully-fledged AI robots didn’t filter down to the auto industry.

Gattaca (set in the mid to late 21st century)


The cars that Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke drive are definitely stylish, but come off as decidedly old school. In a society dedicated to creating perfect humans through genetic engineering, you’d think they would also pimp their rides too.

Total Recall (set in 2084)


Total Recall did predict driverless cars, so no problem there. But the creepy android taxi driver is just comical (which suits the tone of the movie, I guess). But seriously, everybody knows skeuomorphism is so 2007.

Judge Dredd (set in 2139)


It’s 124 years in the future and not only do people still drive themselves around but a futuristic douchebag gets busted for DUI - an unlikely occurrence in a future where the designated driver should be an anachronism. So unrealistic.

Who got it right:

Here are the movies that nailed it, also in chronological order.

Demolition Man (set in 2032)


A few years shy of 2035, but Sandra Bullock demonstrates an extremely believable scenario when she takes a video chat in her autonomous police car, complete with a Siri-like voice assistant. Cheesy movie, but the car tech is spot on.

I, Robot (set in 2035)


The futuristic Audi that Will Smith drives in I, Robot is simply badass. This autonomous car actually feels quite familiar and is entirely believable. And look at the year when this movie is set - 2035! Bang on.

Minority Report (set in 2054)

Minority Report

The driverless cars in this awesome movie are super high-tech and even deliver you straight to your condo window by driving up the side of the building. Perhaps a little ambitious for only 39 years from now, but probably the coolest depiction of autonomous vehicles in any sci-fi movie.

Logan’s Run (set in 2274)


You have to give props to a movie that came out in 1976 but accurately predicted the advent of the autonomous vehicle. And that design has definitely stood the test of time, although maybe doesn’t have the best crash-test ratings.

These movies offer an intriguing glimpse into the possible future of autonomous vehicles. If I was to announce a winner, however, I’d probably go with I, Robot for believability and for fitting perfectly in the proposed timeframe. One thing is for sure, if I make it to 2035, I’ll be looking back on this blog post and writing a follow-up post to discuss what actually panned out!

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