Undead Tech: The Computerized Car

The remote-controlled, computer-savvy car is one of those mythological automotive promises (like the flying car) that we all kind of assumed we'd have by 2010. Where's my Will-Smith-from-i-Robot car?

remote control car

I could do a full-fledged technological genealogy here, but that'd be denying my impulse to talk about KITT, David Hasselhoff's car from the 1980s show Knight Rider. With the ability to jump through the air, deploy defensive weapons and come wagging to you like a golden retriever, KITT is the car that every car-buyer wants, even if they don't know it, and all attempts to add computer + car are just thinly-veiled attempts to evoke KITTy coolness. We may never have cars that actually control themselves or drive remotely, but we can at least have cars that remind us how cool that'd be.

KITT

Volkswagen has been particularly privy to the power of The KITT Appeal, having devoted a substantial amount of money (in conjunction with Stanford University) to build an autonomous Audi TT that can "drift" at high speeds without a driver. If you don't know what drifting is, then you obviously haven't seen any of the Fast and the Furious movies. (Don't.)

The robot TT is called Shelly, and its brains are a Sun Real-Time Java computer system running on a basic Solaris box. Using real-time software lets the car achieve reaction times of just a few milliseconds, much faster than the Stanford/VW partnership's last vehicle, the Junior autonomous Passat that got second in DARPA's robot-car race in 2007. Below, Shelly at work on some salt flats, where it can push 140 mph with no one inside. (It usually performs drifts around 40 mph.)

Audi TT-S

Researchers at VW's Electronics Research Lab hope that technology from Shelly might eventually be used to help drivers control their car during emergency maneuvers, preventing crashes. It smacks a little of the auto-parking technology that companies like Ford and Lexus are building into their high-end sedans.

Like the parking technology, the the VW project presents us with the troubling idea that a car really can have something of a "personality." The card "decides" how fast is too fast, how close is too close, and eventually--in the case of the Audi--when you, the human, needs saving. Very KITT-like indeed.

Of course, KITT had a fully self-aware "cybernetic logic" module with a voice synthesizer that could speak in a variety of accents (including French, Spanish, and New Yorker). Also cool: KITT could do zero to 60 in two seconds, almost twice as fast as a Porsche 997 Turbo. He also had missiles, a mortar-proof shell, rocket motors that enabled gap-jumping, and smell sensor, among about a million other killer features carefully documented on Wikipedia by loving Knight Rider fans.

The only vehicle to match KITT's many senses is perhaps NASA's Mars rover, Spirit, which landed on the Martian surface five years ago for what was supposed to be a 90 day mission, and has been doing science stuff ever since--at least until this week, when it got itself stuck in some Martian quicksand that it can't seem to get out of. (If engineers can't get it to unstick itself before the Martian winter comes in May, it'll be frozen there for time immemorial.)

Mars Rover

Toyota takes the cake for mimicking KITT's internal cockpit. This beauty is the Toyota/Monster/Xbox "All Terrain Gamer," a marketing orgy on wheels with four Xbox consoles, four 24-inch LCD displays, one 60-inch LCD TV, and a bunch of cans of Monster energy drink.

Toyota

Neither Chevy's nor Mercedes' smartphone-controlled cars have quite that much geek cred, but Chevy's system gets points for potential. Their smartphone app, which will be available for Blackberry and iPhone, will allow you to control the charge settings on your shiny new Volt hybrid. Since tethering a car to your home electricity bill is a lot to swallow, this app will allow you to earn some cost savings by controlling when the car is actually charging--presumably so you can program it to suck power only at off-peak hours.

Mercedes is slightly less inventive with their "Mbrace" app; it basically mimics a key fob, letting you locate, lock, and unlock your car.

Mercedes iPhone

Zipcar has an app that takes this a step further: not only can you locate a Zipcar and reserve it, you can also tell the horn to honk so you can find it more easily. Chrysler one-ups them all by using a 3G module to turn their cars into mobile WiFi hotspots. None of these cars doesn't talk back, but hey: honking and email are a start.

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