The 5 Best (and Worst) Autonomous Cars in All of Sci-Fi

Self-driving cars are happening IRL. Here's how we've imagined them in the past.

As the U.S. federal government issues comprehensive regulations regarding self-driving cars and Elon Musk’s Tesla refutes hacker claims over alleged car takeovers, there’s just one question on everyone’s minds: How soon before autonomous cars take over the world?

Science fiction loves a good robots-gone-bad story, but what about automobiles imbued with artificial intelligence? In his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan asserts that a totally hypothetical alien, observing Earth from a great distance, would assume that self-sufficient cars were the dominant form of life on our planet because the “streets of the cities and the roadways of the countryside are evidently built for [the cars’] benefit.” Still, there isn’t a huge amount of science fiction history dealing with self-driving cars, probably because future forms of conveyances depicted in science fiction have overwhelming focused on other kinds of vehicles like jetpacks, rocketships, flying cars, hoverboards, etc.

Still, the autonomous and occasionally sentient self-driving car story certainly has its place in both literary science fiction and pop sci-fi too. If we leave out totally ridiculous cars like Herbie the Love Bug or Ian Fleming’s magical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, what we are left with is five of the best and most feared self-driving sci-fi cars of all time.

KITT from Knight Rider

You knew this one was coming. The popular 1982 TV series Knight Rider ostensibly starred David Hasselhoff as do-gooder and hairy-chest-baring badass, Michael Knight. But, the true star of Knight Rider was obviously KITT — Knight Industries Two Thousand — a fully sentient A.I. controlling the operations of a 1982 Pontiac Trans Am. In addition to a sweet Turbo Boost mode, KITT was obviously capable of driving himself without Hasselhoff’s Michael Knight behind the wheel. Metaphorically and psychology, KITT sort of represents our fear of the self-driving car. In terms of the big stuff, KITT could have gotten the job done without Michael Knight, but everyone felt more comfortable with Michael and his liberally unbuttoned shirts at least being in the car. KITT didn’t need a driver, but because of our paranoia, he had one anyway.

Notably, the telltale back-and-forth red light on the front of KITT comes from another sci-fi robot: the Cylons from the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica. Both the Cylons and KITT were designed by famous TV producer Glen A. Larson. Battlestar even had a proto-KITT in the form of CORA, an onboard A.I. who flies Starbuck’s space fighter for him in the episode “The Long Patrol.”

An illustration for the 1964 GM World's Fair which Asimov commented on in non-fiction


Isaac Asimov’s “Sally”

The grandpa of science fiction robot stories is easily Isaac Asimov. And while Asimov wrote a considerable amount of non-fiction in which he predicted the coming of autonomous cars, he also penned one excellent fictional short story on the subject. In the future of “Sally,” the only kinds of cars allowed on the road are the self-driving variety. The story depicts several cars briefly turning against human beings by surrounding a bus. The titular car, Sally, isn’t viewed with scorn by the human characters, though the reader is given a general sense of unease about this development in human history.

Though this story takes place in Asimov’s conception of 2057, it isn’t implicitly connected to his other robot stories because nothing about the “three laws of robotics” are actually mentioned. Like Asimov’s other robots (and Data from Star Trek) Sally the car has a “positronic brain,” but the safety rules governing these artificial brains from Asimov’s other stories don’t seem to be present.

Hot Rod in the original  1986 'Transformers: The Movie'

Sunbow Productions/Marvel/Hasbro

All of the Autobots in Transformers

When the Transformers instituted themselves into popular culture in 1984, the catchphrase of the heroic Autobot leader Optimus Prime was “Transform and Roll Out!” We might think of the Transformers for their ability to become walking robots, but the biggest appeal most of them have — at least the Autobots, anyway — is their self-driving capability. In fact, in the initial episodes of the first Transformers cartoon, the virtuous Autobots turned into cars only, whereas the dastardly Decepticons transformed exclusively into vehicles and objects mostly know for their weaponization.

There’s something of exceedingly naive car-crazy Americanism here: The most heroic and noble of all the self-driving cars was a giant Mack Truck. And in 1986, when Optimus Prime was replaced with a new leader in Transformers: The Movie, guess what he was called? Hot Rod.

Quaid in the back of the infamous Johnny Cab in 'Total Recall'


A lot of Cars in Philip K. Dick Stories, Novels, and Films

We all know Kanye West posted a still photo from Total Recall when he joined Instagram, and he probably did it to comment on all the self-driving cars in the news. The self-driving Johnny Cabs in Total Recall have disastrous results for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Quaid in that film. Meanwhile, in Minority Report, John Anderton (Tom Cruise) gets taken for a similar nearly-fatal joyride ride at the behest of an autonomous car.

Both Total Recall and Minority Report are based on short stories by Philip K. Dick, an author not shy about his extreme paranoia about both government regulations and technology.

De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

Any of the “Possessed” Automobiles in Maximum Overdrive

Sure, you probably love the haunted car horror-flick Christine, but what about the Stephen King written-and-directed film Maximum Overdrive? Sentient cars hell-bent on humanity’s destruction occupies the majority of this narrative, but unlike King’s supernatural novel Christine, you can count Maximum Overdrive as science fiction. Supernatural forces are not to blame for these cars becoming self-aware. The tail of a comet passing close to Earth, and the existence of an alien UFO in the epilogue, are asserted as the “reason” why these vehicles turned deadly.

Presciently, Stephen King would briefly retire from writing after being in a car accident, and would then write a novel about another mysterious ghost car titled From a Buick 8. Now, the only question that remains is how long before King writes yet another car-themed horror story based on Tesla.

Related Tags