Jules Verne predicted the Apollo missions to the moon. Star Trek predicted cell phones, tablets, and other modern gadgets. And Knight Rider predicted automotive technology that was science fiction in the 1980s, but is common in the cars of today.
Growing up, I was a nerdy kid who liked computers and cars. I loved Knight Rider. The Hoff is okay, but KITT is where it’s at for me. Knight Rider showed me that computers and cars can be cool, despite the ridicule I got from peers for my nerdy interests.
The show hasn’t stood up well to the test of time. The 2008 remake of the series was a flop. Most of what Knight Rider has going for it these days is the 1980s nostalgia factor. Regular Car Reviews recently checked out a KITT replica.
Mr. Regular’s conclusion was basically that the 1982 Pontiac Trans Am that KITT is based on is a lousy car, but who cares? It’s KITT, it looks great on TV, and that’s all that matters. I agree with him.
Much of what made KITT look great on TV was all the assorted gadgetry on board. It was all very futuristic in the 1980s, but some of KITT’s features have become real, or could be very soon.
It may have been futuristic or impossible in the 1980s, but you may already have some Knight Industries technology in your own car right now.
Let’s start with the most obvious example. Michael Knight often would pull up a map on KITT’s one or two screens (depending on which season you’re watching) to plot a course or track the bad guys. Navigation is available today on all but the cheapest new cars. Even my Subaru BRZ, one of the cheapest sports cars you can buy new, includes navigation as standard equipment. If you don’t have it, you can use your phone, or a standalone GPS unit.
In fact, there used to be a Knight Rider GPS available from Radio Shack, complete with KITT’s voice of William Daniels calling you by name and telling you where to go. I wanted one of these so badly, but I couldn’t justify the steep price tag.
Talking cars existed even before KITT’s time. Nissan was way ahead of the game on this, with their infamous “Your door is a jar” (no it’s not, it’s a door) voice warning in Z cars and the Maxima. I even found this video demonstrating a voice warning on a 1981 Maxima, from before Knight Rider even aired!
Of course, today’s voice systems are much more sophisticated than simple warning phrases. With more and more laws prohibiting the use of handheld devices while driving, hands free systems are becoming more and more advanced. About all I trust my BRZ to do is make a phone call. It’s easier to pull over and use the touchscreen to program its navigation than to fight its clunky voice command system (I usually use Waze instead). But SYNC 3 in the Ford Focus ST I recently tested worked rather well for setting a navigation destination as well as for phone calls. Though not the witty banter between Michael Knight and KITT, it got the job done of basic two-way voice communication between human and car. If that’s not good enough, you can just ask Siri.
Automatic Window Tint
For privacy, or to hide the fact that KITT was driving himself, the windows could automatically change from transparent to opaque and back. Wouldn’t this be a great way to get out of a window tint ticket?
Well, you can! Companies such as EAT Glass offer electric window tint systems that work exactly like KITT’s. No guarantees about dodging that ticket, though.
Molecular Bonded Shell
According to Wikipedia, “KITT is armored with “Tri-Helical Plasteel 1000 MBS” (Molecular Bonded Shell) plating which protects him from almost all forms of conventional firearms and explosive devices.” This allowed KITT to drive through all kinds of nasty conditions, from vehicle contact to gunfire to explosions and even through walls, without even suffering a scratch. And as anyone who has ever owned a black car knows, that’s a particularly difficult color to keep clean.
Though the BMW X5 Security doesn’t look nearly as pretty as KITT after getting shot up, it still keeps its occupants safe from harm. Best of all, unlike a military vehicle, the X5 Security doesn’t look any different from a standard X5. Several manufacturers offer vehicles resistant to attack, and there are companies that can add such protection to pretty much any car you bring them.
In season four, RC3 added the “C” button to KITT’s dashboard, which transformed the T-topped car into a sweet looking convertible.
But retractable hardtops are nothing new. All the way back in 1959, the Ford Fairlane Galaxie Skyliner had a retractable hardtop very much like KITT’s. It wasn’t until more recently that these started to become common, though. The Mercedes SLK re-introduced the concept, and since then manufacturers from VW to Lexus have introduced their own versions. Even the last generation Mazda Miata could transform from a convertible into a coupe with its power retractable hardtop option, and we’ve already gushed over how awesome the MX-5 RF is.
Variable Aerodynamic Bodywork
Another season four “improvement” was KITT’s Super Pursuit Mode. This radically altered KITT’s bodywork to allow a top speed of 300mph. To me, it looked like KITT was falling apart, which is a more realistic state for a 1982 Pontiac. Trust me – my first car was also a 1982 Pontiac, though mine was a 6000, not a Trans Am.
Modern supercars have spoilers and wings and things they can adjust on the fly for better grip and aerodynamics at high speeds, just like KITT’s Super Pursuit Mode (and much better looking, in my opinion). It’s not just supercars, either. The Porsche Boxster has an automatic wing that deploys at higher speeds. So did the Volkswagen Corrado. And though the Ford Focus ST has no visible variable aerodynamics, it can open part of the grill for extra cooling when needed, or shut it to improve aerodynamics. We’re living in the future, my friends.
What’s Almost Real
Or are we? There are plenty of things KITT could do that real cars still can’t. For example…
Autonomous cars are all the rage today. Yet no one, despite Tesla’s use of the word “AutoPilot,” has actually built a fully self driving production car yet.
But we’re close – very close. Though Tesla’s AutoPilot is more like an advanced adaptive cruise control system than KITT’s fully autonomous Auto Cruise function, under close human supervision it can handle many highway traffic situations. Just ask Alex Roy, Carl Reese, and Deena Mastracci. They “drove” a Tesla Model S from Los Angeles to New York City in 57 hours and 48 minutes. I use the term “drove” loosely, because although one of them was ready to take the wheel at all times, the Tesla drove itself for 96% of the record setting journey.
Also, Tesla and Audi have both demonstrated the ability to have your car go park itself, then come pick you up when you summon it. The car drives at walking pace, and since parking lots are private property this bypasses the legal issue of unmanned cars on public roads. Personally, I’m not interested in this unless I can say “KITT, I need ya, buddy!” into my watch to summon my car. But the technology already exists to make this possible.
Meanwhile, as Tesla and other companies are slowly but continuously evolving their self driving technology, Ford recently announced that they intend to produce a fully autonomous car for ride sharing in 2021. That’s only five years away, one more year than Knight Rider was on the air. It’s a giant leap for a company that’s already way behind others in autonomous features, but maybe the short timetable will force Ford to make some revolutionary developments in autonomous technology to leapfrog the competition.
Either way, as long as I still have the option for “Normal Cruise,” I’m fine with telling KITT to take over for traffic jams, if I’m tired, or if I had one too many at the after-party.
Infrared Tracking Scope
In the context of Knight Rider, KITT’s Infrared Tracking Scope “could monitor the position of specific vehicles in the area within 10 miles.” This couldn’t possibly work by infrared, which would require line-of-sight vision to the vehicle in question. A small GPS and radio transmitter stuck to the car being tracked would be a different story, like the amateur radio APRS tracker I used to use on my motorcycle. Superimpose that data on a Google map, and you could track my movements just like KITT did – but only if I turned the transmitter on.
But some BMWs, Cadillacs, and others have their own take on the Infrared Tracking Scope – a night vision display. The heat signatures of living creatures, human and otherwise, show up brightly on the display no matter how bright or dark they are to the human eye. This could provide the extra warning you need to avoid a deer, moose, or person on the road.
KITT had an onboard medical scanner that could measure and display someone’s vital signs, similar to a tricorder from Star Trek. Already we have devices like the FitBit that measure and record heart rate and activity data, such as how many steps and flights of stairs you’ve taken today, or how well you slept last night. Just a few months ago, scientists speaking at Phoenix Comic Con said they were close to creating a real life tricorder. Either of these, with the appropriate interfaces to a car, could enable the car to warn you if you were too tired or intoxicated to drive. Or imagine if it detected that you were having a heart attack or a seizure, switched to full autonomous mode, and drove you to the nearest hospital as quickly as it could while calling ahead to explain your condition. We’re not far away from that.
Not Gonna Happen
Of course, KITT had some other functions that will never make it into production cars, no matter how much we might want them to.
KITT’s most famous feature is also the most unrealistic. I would LOVE to be able to turbo boost over that idiot hogging the left lane at the same speed as the right lane. But that’s not going to happen, and not just for liability reasons.
Consider this video, recently shared by Jalopnik, of a car being lifted off the ground by the force of several downward pointing fire hoses. Yes, it worked. But fire hoses are extremely powerful. It still took several of them to provide enough force to lift the car (a Trabant, by the way, which is much lighter than a Trans Am). Also, as you may have noticed, water is far more dense than air. You would need a jet engine larger than the car itself to lift it off the ground. Never mind the precision you’d need pre-launch to control your trajectory (rally drivers get pretty good at this), or the body crushing shock of the landing (which is why southern California suffered a severe lack of 1970ish Dodge Chargers when The Dukes of Hazzard was being made).
According to Wikipedia, “KITT is powered by the Knight Industries turbojet with modified afterburners and a computer controlled 8-speed turbodrive transmission. Specifications 0–60 mph in 2 seconds, standing to quarter mile 4.286 seconds.”
In reality, there have actually been turbine cars.
The 1963 Chrysler Turbine was literally a jet car. For that matter, so was the Batmobile, which was a modified 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car. But in an automotive application, a jet engine didn’t have any real advantages over the internal combustion engine, had worse fuel economy, and would have required a completely new production line to produce the turbine engines. It just wasn’t practical to build on a large scale. The same would apply to a modern day KITT.
In fairness, though, a computer controlled 8-speed automatic transmission is available today in many cars. That’s pretty futuristic, considering that the 1982 Trans Am only had three or four speeds, depending on which 305 motor it had.
Here’s another feature I’d love to have – the ability to lock the brakes of other vehicles. That’s one way to get a tailgater to back off! Unfortunately, the theory of its operation is rather absurd.
This system is believed to work by utilizing focused microwaves to heat the brake fluid, causing it to expand and apply the brakes of the car.
Yeah… If anything, overheated brake fluid would boil, adding gas to the lines and causing the brakes to be less effective, not more. Also, the massive amount of microwave energy required would probably cook the occupants of the car the same way a microwave oven cooks your dinner long before the brakes were affected.
WTF is this, anyway? Apparently, Surveillance Mode could detect people and vehicles and track their movements and discern proximity; gather structural schematics of buildings, vehicles, or other devices and help Michael avoid potential danger when he was snooping; monitor radio transmissions and telephone communications within a location and trace those calls; and tap into computer systems to monitor, or upload and download information as long as he could break the access codes. Basically, it’s Knight Rider‘s version of Doctor Who‘s sonic screwdriver, or Star Trek channeling everything through the main deflector dish – a catch-all easy way out of any plot hole they couldn’t write themselves out of any other way.
Third Stage Aquatic Synthesizer
I can’t even find a photo of KITT driving on water, but I did find a picture of a Boston Duck Boat, a bus/boat that really can handle both environments. I know for a fact that these work because I’ve been on one myself. Boston Duck Tours takes riders on tours of Boston, both by land and by sea (I wonder how many lanterns would hang in the Old North Church for that one?) They use modified DUKWs, which are themselves modified deuce-and-a-half Army trucks from World War II with amphibious capabilities. They didn’t need a new fangled Third Stage Aquatic Synthesizer to take to the water.
The problem with amphibious vehicles is that they don’t handle either environment particularly well. The Duck Boat lumbers around the streets of Boston just as awkwardly as you’d imagine a six wheeled Army truck would on a road system designed hundreds of years ago by grazing cows. It has a top speed of 50mph on land, and just 6.3mph in the water. (On the plus side, that’s slow enough that Duck Boat tour drivers routinely give small children a chance to drive while they’re in the water.) The idea that KITT could simply hydroplane across the surface using his wheels and turbo for propulsion is just ludicrous. No wonder this only appeared in one episode (“Return to Cadiz,” if you’re wondering.)
So while some of KITT’s functions and features are nothing but fantasy, some could make their way into the real world, and others already have. Who knows what the science fiction writers of today will inspire engineers to design and create tomorrow?
Interesting Side Note
Did you know that KITT was originally supposed to be a Corvette, not a Trans Am? It would make a lot more sense, since the Corvette was the pinnacle of American sports car technology at the time, and arguably still is today. The problem was the timing. Knight Rider premiered in 1982, right when the C4 Corvette was supposed to be coming out as a 1983 model. Corvette aficionados know what happened next – or more specifically what didn’t happen, that being the 1983 Corvette. There wasn’t one. “Quality and production problems had delayed introduction of the new C4 generation so 1983 was passed over,” according to The Corvette Story. But, as they say in show biz, “The show must go on,” and so it did, with GM’s next best sports car taking the Corvette’s place – the Pontiac Trans Am.