David Hasselhoff reputedly claimed that acting in Knight Rider was harder than being in The Godfather, because, "I had to talk to a car." He should have waited.
Three decades on from KITT's debut, most executive cars have a voice-activation button. Speaking a destination into a sat-nav, then having the car verbally instruct you back with the directions, might have been pure sci-fi in 1982, but by the time of the DVD release it was entirely commonplace.
OK, so our cars have yet to reach KITT's philosophical self-awareness. They contain learning systems, yes, but that's not quite the same level of consciousness. On the other hand, the vast majority of that old Pontiac's sensory and information-processing capabilities have been matched by the modern production automobile.
Knight of the road
The headline act is of course autonomous driving. KITT called the features Cruise modes, and they have an almost spooky similarity with what has really come to pass in driver assistance and self-driving. Michael Knight (the Hoff) drives in KITT's normal cruise mode, but if the car senses anything abnormal, it steps in to keep out of trouble.
Plenty of cars that do that sort of thing now. Many cars have visual, and radar and laser sensors that detect cars in front, warn you if they stop suddenly, and even brake if you don't (Ford has a comedy demo here). Volvo, among others, have a system that will do the same with errant pedestrians and cyclists.
Cameras can sense highway lane markers and warn if you're drifting off course. Some, including this VW one, will nudge the steering to get you back between the lines. Still others try to stop you changing lanes if you've missed a car in the blind spot.
But KITT had another cruise mode - Auto Cruise. It did all the driving. And yes, we've got that in real life now too, albeit in prototype form.
The car hunter
Mind you, KITT did have another trick up its sleeve. Today's semi- and fully autonomous systems would keep an antiseptically clean driver's licence thanks to their sanctimonious adherence to traffic laws and speed limits. KITT had another Cruise mode, called Pursuit. This used its sensors and systems to aid Michael Knight and react at superhuman speed during times when it was necessary for him to adopt what we might call a more expeditious driving style. Such a button hasn't yet been implemented on any production car. But it could be. This BMW video proceeds like any other autonomous-car demo until about 0'57", and then things take a definite turn for the lairy:
KITT also had what was called a Surveillance Mode, tracking other vehicles. Being able to figure out the paths other cars in the visual field is what we do all the time, and what autonomous cars will at the very least need to do. But as vehicle-to-vehicle and intelligent traffic system networks develop, it'll also be possible to map individual cars, including accidents and jams, from beyond obstacles and over the horizon.
What’s for dinner, Michael?
One of KITT's best remembered features was its voice (sorry, Anharmonic Synthesizer) played by William Daniels. Strangely, the very next year after the show ended, Britain's ill-fated Austin Rover introduced the Maestro hatchback, which in top-spec versions came with its own voice synthesiser. It was sampled from the dulcet tones of voiceover artiste Nicolette McKenzie. It didn't offer much wisdom or engage in banter; it admonished you for not fastening your seatbelts or warned you of such ailments as low windscreen washer fluid. The Maestro also had a digital dashboard, resembling a simplified version of KITT's shonky array of diodes.
KITT was powered by a multi-fuel turbojet, driving the wheels with an eight-speed transmission (an unheard-of number of gears then; common now). You see experimental and concept cars featuring turbines every decade or so (prominently Volvo in 1992, and Jaguar in 2010). But they never seem to come to much, killed by cost and emissions problems mostly.
KITT also had a Stealth Mode, where it proceeded in eerie silence. So of course do today's hybrids. Many electric cars are now prepared for inductive charging – just as with some phones, a current in a coil in the ground induces current in the car to recharge it. KITT used that idea in reverse, using an onboard coil in one episode to electrify a fence, capturing the bad guys.
Not all there
KITT could jump. Cars (still) can't, but several SUVs since the 1993 Range Rover fitted with air suspension can replicate KITT's High Traction Drop Downs, raising ground clearance for rough terrain.
It wasn't only the suspension that adapted to the task. For later series, KITT got a Super Pursuit Mode, sprouting a distinctly home-handyman-looking collection of big spoilers, wings, airbrakes and active aerodynamics. You can now find the idea enacted, in much more elegant form, on various McLarens, Porsches, Ferraris and the Bugatti Veyron.
Even KITT's window glass could come over all chameleon, going opaque for privacy. In 2005 Ferrari launched the 575 Superamerica. It had a glass roof that tinted at the touch of switch, by electrochromic action. So, come to that, do the passenger windows on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
KITT had mobile telephony. A feature that's as common as breathing these days, so we'll move swiftly on. But Knight could also talk to the car via a watch. Aston Martin made a car that could be locked and unlocked by a companion Jaeger-LeCoultre watch.
Many electric cars have mobile apps so you can remotely tell them to charge using cheap-rate electricity, or warm their cabin while still attached to the mains umbilical cord, or interrogate them on state of charge. A smartwatch app is doubtless on the horizon.
What is definitely not on the horizon, at least for us civilians, are KITT's flame throwers, tear gas launchers, magnesium flares, or oil jets. But the barriers there are legal and social rather than technological.
Given their impressive hit rate, it's interesting to speculate how much the original series' creators really knew about the likely path of car technology over the quarter-century after their writing. Were they highly imaginative, or almost chillingly prescient?
image credit: Daniel Dionne