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The 30-Year Auto Technology Progress Report – Graded By Knight Rider


kITTThe other half scored some DVD versions of some 1980s TV series over the weekend, and it’s been a chance to rewatch some old favourites and to watch some of those things I wasn’t allowed to watch as a kid. Among the collection was a set of Knight Rider episodes. You know the one – the one with the very high-tech futuristic Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am called KITT driven by crime fighter Michael Knight.

It’s intriguing to think that a lot of the car designers and inventors of today – at least the ones who got to watch American TV shows – probably watched this show and similar, and were inspired by it. KITT, after all, was the high-tech car of the future and had all the gadgets and features that people dreamed of having in cars.

So, thirty years later, how is the automotive technology world doing? How close are we to having KITTs of our own?

  • Full colour display screens – yes, we’ve got this one. In fact, we’ve gone one better than KITT, as today’s computer screens are touch-sensitive, something that even futuristic TV show writers hadn’t even thought of.



  • Navigation. Again, one big tick in this box.  OK, with today’s navigation, you get shown a map with the route and the car tells you when you have to turn, rather than having the car doing the turns just about by itself like KITT seemed to. And yes, it is possible to buy the voice of KITT for some navigation systems (try for a start).
  • Hands-free dialling. Another big tick here!  We once all went “oooh!” when Michael Knight told KITT to dial up Devon or Dr Bonnie (or April in Series 2). When my kids watched the DVD with us, their reaction was “So what?”  We do indeed have hands-free and sometimes voice-activated dialling in our car phones.  KITT impressed viewers in the 1980s with the way that the people phoned communicated with Michael via a screen Skype style.  We probably do have the technology to Skype while driving these days – there are a number of car computers that let you use a few online apps (some of the new Infiniti models, for example). However, a big question mark comes up as to whether this is a good idea. It’s probably more distracting than texting while driving. And we all know how bad this is.
  • Turbo boost.  With a press of a button, KITT could go superfast. We’re sort of getting there. Heaps of cars have different driving modes – usually Eco, Normal and Sport – and the Sport setting does help you get some extra responsive vroom. However, normal cars’ boost does not let them jump things with rocket assistance like KITT did. Imagine the headaches for traffic control if this was a standard feature. KITT did have different drive modes, too: Normal (Michael in charge), Auto Cruise (KITT drives himself), Pursuit (both of them share control, with KITT doing most of the stuff at high speed, because he/it reacts faster) and Super Pursuit (screamingly fast and speeds over 300 mph). Don’t look for Super Pursuit in any production car…
  • The front scanner.  On KITT, this was the cool-looking red lights on the front bumper (which are also illegal, as red is the signal meaning “this is the back of the car, guys”).  This allowed KITT to see things on the road ahead.  Again, we’re getting there. A lot of new cars do have sensors all over the show that do detect things in front of you or in the blind spot. A few of them – notably the new Mercedes models – also have a head-up display that identifies speed limit signs and other things of that sort, popping them up on the windscreen. But nothing quite as sophisticated as KITT, who could hear and smell into the bargain.
  • Auto Collision Avoidance.  KITT could dodge things and take matters into its (his?) own hands if a collision was imminent. Modern cars can’t zigzag like KITT but some of them can start applying the brakes and the like if it thinks you’re about to crash. They don’t dodge out of the way, though. 
  • Computer print out.  Not yet.  Theoretically, though, the technology exists, so it’s a possibility.
  • Hydrogen gas engines that can run on anything combustible.  Again, not yet.  We do, however, have electric engines that just need recharging.
  • Flame throwers, tear gas jets and lasers.  Not on your typical production car for obvious reasons. Not even cop cars have tear gas or tasers fitted. Nor do they have microlock that uses microwaves to trigger the brakes of other cars.
  • ATM machine.  Dream on!

There are some rumours circulating that there’s a movie adaptation of Knight Rider coming out in the near future.  Wonder what futuristic technology the new KITT will have to inspire the car designers of the future.