Letting Go of the Wheel: 75 Years of Sentient Vehicles

By Richard McKenna / March 28, 2018

The car: what better avatar for our age than that mass-produced, self-contained, mobile habitation that frames the outside world through an anamorphic screen? Over the last century, the car has conditioned our world and lives perhaps more than any other technology, shaping our ideas by accident or design while hobbling the growth of public transport, and demanding by its very existence the creation of the largest civil engineering project in history of humankind—a world-altering network of smooth surfaces along which to glide, spewing gas and oil, in our increasingly powerful self-propelled carriages. The car and its production, maintenance, and fueling have been one of the principal—if not the principal—drivers of post-war Western economies and history, employing millions of people, altering entire landscapes and destinies, as well as necessitating wars and uneasy alliances to ensure that environmentally unsustainable units continued to roll off the production line. The automobile’s effects on the world are comparable with that of a major religion.

Since its first iteration as little more than a cart with a kettle on top, replacing the organic beast of burden, the car has come to embody the dreams of industrial society, developing into the impossibly sophisticated private habitats we know today, equipped with centralized locking to keep everything—especially the rest of the human race—outside. But if the technocratic oracles of the 21st century are to be believed, our world is about to be subjected to a new transformation: autonomous vehicles requiring no human pilot. That being the case, this feels like a timely moment to cast an eye back over some of the more memorable sentient vehicles—cars and otherwise—that have traversed the landscape of post-war popular fiction.

Children’s literature is littered with sentient vehicles, and like many Brits, my first exposure to them came not in the shape of a car, but in the more democratic form of the train. Thomas from the Railway Series books and Ivor from television series Ivor the Engine (1959, 1975-1977) represented two different kinds of anthropomorphism: the mechanical protagonists of the former, written by Reverend Wilbert Awdry and first published in 1945, had faces and mouths and could express themselves like humans, while Welsh locomotive Ivor, the brainchild of animators Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, possessed no human features and communicated exclusively via steam. Thomas was the eerier of the two, however: notwithstanding the vaguely paranormal nature of the world he inhabited, Ivor’s sentience expressed itself in ways consistent with his mechanical form. The huge faces grafted seamlessly onto the mechanical hulls of the Railway Series trains (as depicted by artists Reginald Payne and C. Reginald Dalby), on the other hand, sat uncomfortably with their nominally natural setting, implying awkward questions about their physiology. Though occasionally capricious, Ivor was a cheerful creature of predictable habit, while the trains of the Railway Series seemed trapped in a world of petty one-upmanship and personal rancor that made them, to my infant eyes, even more confusing.

you driveThe same year that the BBC showed the first Ivor cartoons in Britain—1959—a sentient vehicle also appeared on American television in the Twilight Zone episode “You Drive,” written by Earl Hamner Jr., better known as the creative force behind The Waltons and Falcon Crest. In the episode, a Ford Fairlane Club Sedan is possessed by the need to fulfill a moral imperative after its owner gets in a hit-and-run accident—causing the death of a young boy—and subsequently attempts to evade blame. The car adopts increasingly overt tactics to convince the man to face his responsibilities, eventually physically bullying him into turning himself over to the police, though no explanation is given for the car’s burgeoning conscience.

Almost 10 years later, in 1968, a sentient vehicle dominated the world’s cinema screens in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Indulging in the kind of vaguely nauseating, overheated proto-steampunk also seen in the 1965’s Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, the protagonist of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang did not communicate in human terms, its sentience seemingly limited to occasionally revealing unexpected abilities to surprised owner Caractacus Potts, played by Dick Van Dyke. Also in 1965, the younger Van Dyke brother, Jerry, appeared alongside a possessed vehicle in the much-reviled NBC sitcom My Mother the Car, where a 1928 Porter touring car is discovered to be the reincarnation of the protagonist’s mother, who—in a peculiar foreshadowing of sentient vehicle interfaces of the future—speaks to him through the car’s radio, which flashes in time with her utterances.

1968 also brought us two of popular culture’s best known vehicle personalities: 2001‘s HAL and Herbie. Herbie was a playful, capricious, and competitive Volkswagen Beetle who made his first appearance in Disney’s The Love Bug. Incapable of speech, Herbie communicated through action, often of the impulsive sort. The character was based on a story by Gordon Buford who, in an interview with VW owner magazine Small World, claimed that he’d been inspired by the way his rural parents had treated their cars like horses. Herbie went on to star in a string of films and a short-lived TV series. Though often thought of as the villain of the piece, HAL 9000—the supercomputer who is an integral part of the Discovery One spaceship in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—is actually a victim of human hypocrisy, driven insane by the conflicting orders it has been programmed with. HAL’s voice was provided by Canadian actor Douglas Rain: keen to make HAL sound unemotional and impressed by Rain’s “bland mid-Atlantic accent,” with its “unctuous, patronizing, neuter quality” and hints of Winston Hibler (whose tones appeared on many Disney nature documentaries), HAL’s lines were recorded in less than two days, without Rain seeing any of the film or having any idea with whom he was interacting.

The 1970s, a decade of gas shortages and energy crises, saw the motif take a more malevolent turn: 1974’s  Killdozer!, based on a 1944 Theodore Sturgeon novella, concerns an alien intelligence taking control of a Caterpillar D9 bulldozer and setting off on a rampage against a gang of workmen. Despite the absurdity of its premise, a dyspeptic electronic score, and Jerry London’s workmanlike direction, Killdozer! remains an oddly unnerving film, perhaps because it reminds us of the powerful and dangerous machines with which we have surrounded ourselves, and the extent to which we depend on them.

1977 marked the appearance of one of popular culture’s most memorable vehicular horrors—the title character of The Car, a thriller in which small town sheriff James Brolin attempts to halt the murderous reign of terror being perpetrated by a mysterious and seemingly supernatural black automobile. Despite The Car being a poor film in many respects, it retains a certain power because of the surreal form of The Car itself, a black Lincoln Continental Mark III customized to resemble a nightmarish archetype that perfectly—and possibly accidentally—captures much that is alien, aggressive, and frightening about automobiles. Spielberg’s 1971 Duel, 1974’s The Cars that Ate Paris, and even 1980’s gratifyingly appalling The Hearse all testify to the continuing power of driverless vehicles—or at least, vehicles whose drivers are never seen, which amounts to much the same thing—to inspire deep-seated fear.

A record released a couple of years after The Car—Gary Numan’s 1979 debut single “Cars“—underlined the shift that had taken place. In 1963, the Beach Boys had scored a hit with their cheerful B-side Little Deuce Coupe, but, as we transitioned into the ’80s, a car was no longer simply a souped-up carriage without a horse. It lost its innocence and became something stranger, overtly an aspect of ourselves, or perhaps we an aspect of it. To paraphrase John Updike’s oft-quoted aphorism about fame, automobility was revealing itself to be a container that ate into the body, a destructive, mutually parasitical relationship that J. G. Ballard examined in 1973’s Crash.

battle_beyond_stars_poster_011980‘s Battle Beyond the Stars—Roger Corman’s enjoyably left-field contribution to the wave of stragglers cashing in on Star Wars—featured the second female vehicle sentience of this list: the starship Nell, voiced by the great Lynn Carlin. While James Cameron’s memorable and well-intentioned design for Nell—the idea was to introduce a distinctively feminine physical presence among the male-dominated starways—is ultimately reductive and crass, Nell the character represents something unique: a skilled, vocal, and authoritative female presence who is entirely her own personality, playing a kind of mentor to her young male pilot.

The decade that followed, however, would go on to be dominated by two very masculine cars that existed at opposite polarities: the calm and urbane KITT of TV show Knight Rider, and the brooding and vengeful Christine. Knight Rider debuted in 1982, and though the series was couched in the campy, stylistic cadences of its day and the demands of serial television, KITT—a 1982 Pontiac Firebird customized to become the ‘Knight Industries Two Thousand’—proved to be an unexpectedly engaging being: far more so than the human cast by which it was surrounded. KITT (whose interior was memorably described in the show’s first episode as resembling “Darth Vader’s bathroom”) was voiced by actor William Daniels with a smooth, slightly waspish Mid-Atlantic accent and possessed a personality by turns excitable and prissily didactic, which contrasted nicely with its sleek physical beauty. As the series progressed, KITT was given a nemesis in the form of another Knight Industries creation: the shark-like KARR, voiced by Peter Cullen, who, perhaps not by coincidence, also voiced Optimus Prime in the 1980s Transformers animated series. (The Transformers are a phenomenon in themselves; though they clearly are sentient vehicles, it’s a struggle to read them as such, because their anthropoid robot forms are so much more memorable than their pre-transformation shapes. Who gives a shit about Optimus Prime as a truck?)

Lacking other means of expressing itself, Christine—the titular 1958 Plymouth Fury that was the protagonist of Steven King’s 1983 novel and John Carpenter’s film adaptation from the same year—used violence and rock ‘n’ roll radio to communicate. With its aggressively space-age stylings and gleaming bulk, Christine represented a completely different conception of automobile beauty to KITT’s elegant modernity, evoking the repressed rage and violence in which the car indulges when provoked, and underlining—like The Car—the inherent menace built into the forms of our vehicles. Later in the same decade, King was also responsible for the ill-tempered trucks featured in 1986’s forgettable Maximum Overdrive, which he directed himself, adapting it from his own short story “Trucks,” originally published in 1973.

In animation, anthropomorphic vehicles have long been a standard trope—notable examples including Disney’s 1952 Susie the Little Blue Coupe, Wheelie from Hanna-Barbera’s 1974 Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch, 1973’s Speed Buggy, and 1978’s Wonder Wheels—but perhaps the strangest of them appeared in 1984, in the middle of Knight Rider‘s tenure. Turbo Teen told the story of teenager Brett Matthews who, Brundlefly-like, is accidentally fused at a molecular level with his Trans Am in a secret government laboratory. Subsequently, when exposed to high temperatures, he turns into a car-human hybrid in what must be one of the most unsettling and grotesque transformation scenes in the history of film and TV. There is already something vaguely disturbing about the lurching quality of much TV animation of the time, but even by the standards of its peers, Turbo Teen is deeply odd, and feels as though it contains Freudian depths of unexamined car-related psychology.

Over their history in post-war popular culture, then, sentient vehicles have, with few exceptions, been male. They have sometimes played our consciences and sometimes encouraged us to bring out the worst in ourselves. They have been our helpmates, our peers, our executioners, and our victims. Sometimes they have seemed a metaphor for an inability to communicate, sometimes for confusion about humanity’s place in an increasingly mechanized world. Will the legacy of these fictional vehicular intelligences inform the epochal change we face as we finally let go of the steering wheel? After all, the car has been to modernity pretty much what the wheel was to our prehistoric forebears. What will it mean when we are forced to relinquish control of the exoskeleton many of us seem to view as our true homes? What exactly is our role in this future, if it’s not going to be our foot that’s on the pedal? Companion? Symbiont? Will cars tolerate us the way crocodiles tolerate the plovers that keep their teeth clean? Or perhaps we’ll simply be there as witnesses: passengers watching passively, flies on the windscreen, as the dream world we have created silently rolls past.


McKenna AvatarRichard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.

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2 thoughts on “Letting Go of the Wheel: 75 Years of Sentient Vehicles

  1. Pingback: The Surreal Within the Everyday: Jim Woodring’s ‘Frank’

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