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Automotive Weekend Reads

Hollywood’s most frightening vehicles exposed

This Halloween, our neighborhoods and doorsteps will be visited by hordes of pint-sized ghosts, goblins, and heroes of every sort. Meanwhile, theaters will be filled with movies made to fright and delight, preying on our fears of the unknown. Autonomous cars are nothing to fear, but it wasn’t long ago that Hollywood teased us with visions of ghostly self-driving vehicles.

Everything old is new again - and one of Hollywood’s go-to themes for scary movies are treasured relics from the past. The 80’s themed “Stranger Things”, for example, will return this week for its second season. The series has a classic monster-movie plot, heavily accented with nostalgic references.

So, for Halloween, it’s with a little nostalgia that we take a look at Hollywood’s scariest vehicles from the past.

Duel – 1971

25-year-old Stephen Spielberg was a rising star, but he had yet to deliver a feature-length film with his name on it. With a deadline and a vision, he reportedly made the film in just 16 days.

“Duel” followed the plight of a common man being tormented by a rusty, over-sized tanker truck determined to run him off the road. The driver of the truck is never seen, only indicated, even through to the film’s conclusion when the dangerous truck runs off the road. Was it an autonomous car run amok? Likely not, as keeping the villain hidden from view is a device Spielberg would later use again in Jaws.


Autonomy Report: SAE level zero! The old rusty truck certainly did not have proper sensors or processing power needed to create a localization model. As well, GPS satellites weren’t launched until 1978.

Christine – 1978

John Carpenter was the quintessential horror/thriller director of the 1980s. Paired with Stephen King, the two set out to spin the tale of a car, specifically a 1958 Plymouth Fury, that retaliates against a gang of bullies that defaced it. The car, named Christine by its owner, drives around town in an indestructible rage, exacting revenge against its persecutors.

Though apparently self-driving, the more interesting feature was the number of times Christine went from various states of wreckage, and returned itself to showroom quality. Though we already have Self-Healing Maps, self-healing polymers are still only prevalent at the molecular level.


Autonomy report: SAE level zero! As revealed in the conclusion of the film, the car’s owner was operating the vehicle the whole time.

Maximum Overdrive – 1986

Stephen King took the directorial reigns for a second visit to vehicular terror. This time, all manner of vehicles and machines come to life to threaten humanity. Lawnmowers, vending machines, a hairdryer, and a giant big-rig truck all attempted to enslave humans to refuel themselves.

Luckily, as was common in the 80’s, the humans procured a cache of weapons and freed themselves. The survivors of King’s vision literally sailed into the sunset, toward a world without machines. But, were they truly autonomous vehicles?


Autonomy report: Sorry, still SAE level zero. The epilogue of the film states that life turned back to normal after a UFO was destroyed. This conclusively indicates that all machines were being remotely controlled, proven by their inability to navigate independently after a loss of connection, as any truly autonomous car could.

Will we see a return of the scary vehicle in the near future? With the popularity of Stranger things, and Hollywood’s penchant for re-booting old themes, we expect so. Have a Safe and Happy Halloween!

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