Reel Science

Minority Report’s Greatest Prediction Isn’t the One You Think

Sure, the computers are cool, but a city with no traffic? Now there’s a utopia.

minority report
DreamWorks Pictures/Inverse
The Future of Transportation

It’s been 22 years since the release of Minority Report, the Tom Cruise-led adaptation of a 1956 Philip K. Dick story of the same title, and one of the more utopian aspects of the film’s vision of our future seems closer than ever — with prototypes popping up everywhere.

No, we’re not talking about the oft-cited holographic touch computing on display throughout the movie — at least not here. Recent advances in spatial computing (ahem, Apple Vision Pro) really do seem to hold a promising future for this tech, and the movie is awesomely predictive on this front, give or take weird keyboard gloves.

Instead, there’s a technology on display that’s a little more out there: a Washington D.C. of the year 2054 without traffic jams, courtesy of self-driving cars rushing along the raised white concrete highways that swoop gracefully between, around, and even up the sides of buildings like an oversize version of those toy slot racing cars from the early 1990s. At one point, the protagonist John Anderton’s car rides up the side of his apartment building and docks to large glass windows, allowing him to exit directly into his suite.

As is usually the case with a Philip K. Dick invention, this technology proves to be double-edged. When Anderton is falsely accused of murder, his networked, autonomous car is remotely commandeered by authorities. An intensely acrobatic pedestrian escape ensues. Implications of freedom from corrupt use of the tech aside, could such a network of self-driving cars — and a city free from traffic — come to be?

Today’s Self-Driving Cars

As anyone who has driven a Tesla knows, self-driving cars, or nearly self-driving cars, are a very near reality, even if limited in deployment. Autonomous taxi companies like Cruise and Waymo have been carrying passengers sans drivers in San Francisco since 2022 and 2023, while Tesla and Google are both researching degrees of autonomy for cars.

A Waymo autonomous vehicle drives itself in San Francisco.


The degrees of autonomy are what make the difference between a hands-free jaunt in a Model 3 and a highway that runs itself, says Ram Vasudevan, an associate professor of robotics at the University of Michigan, where he studies software algorithms that can make autonomous vehicles work more reliably. The distinction is between automated vehicles and autonomous vehicles, where “automated vehicles have the ability to drive without a human driver,” he tells Inverse, “but generally speaking, are probably being monitored by a human from a home base.” Fully autonomous vehicles, in Vasudevan’s categorization, can operate without a human in the loop at all.

Waymo cars are automated, not fully autonomous. The reason why isn’t because the software cannot handle the challenge of driving in and of itself — it’s that the cars are driving alongside people. “Humans are really the place where driving becomes difficult,” Vasudevan says. Even in Minority Report, it’s “when Tom Cruise starts actually trying to operate the vehicle that creates this chaotic wave of insanity.”

The Autonomous Highway of the Future

“You're taking away one lane of a public highway, for instance. Is this actually benefiting everyone, or just benefiting some small handful of people?”

DreamWorks Pictures

“The movie is interesting, and on the self-driving front,” Vasudavan says, “I think they discovered something remarkable.” What they discovered is, in a sense, that the only way out of the traffic and crashes and snags you find on our current roads and highways is to let the computers do it all, for each and every one in a vehicle. “Whenever I am giving talks at different places to the public, someone in the audience always makes the same comment: These cars are cheating because they are operating on these dedicated, autonomous highways.”

That may seem the case, but removing humans from the driving equation might really be the only way to a more utopic highway system.

“We as human beings do a lot of very subtle things to reveal our behaviors to other human beings; those kinds of subtle cues are much more difficult for an autonomous system to detect,” Vasudevan says. “The variability is really the problem. If they were consistently good, or predictably bad, driving would be a lot more straightforward.”

And it’s not just human drivers that are the problem. “Pedestrians can still behave quite irrationally,” Vasudevan says. “At the moment, the unpredictability of a cyclist or pedestrian can create enough of an issue for these systems to not be safely deployable now.”

So the real enabling technology in Minority Report, as far as self-driving cars go, might be undisclosed breakthroughs in urban planning and zoning approvals more than the cars themselves. The fictional vehicle software steering the cars of Minority Report might not be much better than the real-world software of today, but that world has dedicated roads for the cars: Aside from Tom Cruise, there are no humans on foot or bicycle to contend with on the roads of the future. This is not exactly a system that we will find our way to overnight.

“That world has a lot of attractiveness to it,” Vasudevan says. “But let me caution it requires a huge government investment in a dedicated lane, along with players from the industry side.”

Don’t do this with your self-driving Tesla.

DreamWorks Pictures

There have been some moves in that direction. As of 2020 at least, the state of Michigan and the start-up company Cavenue were discussing creating an autonomous vehicle dedicated lane between Ann Arbor and Detroit.

But just because you can do something doesn’t meant necessarily mean you should. Vasudevan believes in the potential of autonomous technologies — he’s the co-founder of a start-up spun out of the University of Michigan called Refraction AI that uses a three-wheeled robot to make food deliveries by bike lane — but he cautions that before undertaking any project that will require billions of dollars of investment and reshape society, it’s important to make sure it will solve real problems for real people and not create new problems at the same time.

“You’re taking away one lane of a public highway, for instance,” Vasudevan says. “Is this actually benefiting everyone, or just benefiting some small handful of people?”

A Focus on the Individual Cars

The Hyundai Mobis can rotate or drive diagonally by rotating its wheels by up to 90 degrees.


“If your question is ‘Hey, are we in a world where we can solve this problem and build a fully autonomous thing in the next five years or 10 years?’” Vasudevan says, “in the current nature and state of driving, my answer is probably not.”

But we are seeing loads of advances in the way that our individual cars sense, take control, and even drive.

There was, after all, another quality of the cars of the future as seen in Minority Report that might be closer at hand and that was their omnidirectional mobility. The cars can rotate 360 degrees and even drive up buildings. Mechanically, such things are possible, and even in the works. For instance, Hyundai Mobis, an affiliate of Hyundai Motor Group, has developed what it calls an “e-Corner” system. It rotates a car’s wheels as much as 90 degrees to allow for unusual movements, such as rotating or driving diagonally. But using such engineering for more than perfect parallel parking could also prove difficult with human drivers in the mix.

“You could probably build cars that can do way more, but human beings probably wouldn’t be able to use all of those features simultaneously without lots and lots of training,” Vasudevan says.

That’s not a bad start.

Related Tags