Thursday, October 14, 2010

Technology has caught up with Kitt

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 13.)

Back in the 1980s my children were fond of a TV programme called Knight Rider.

No doubt you’ll remember it. The star of the show, supposedly, was David Hasselhoff, but what really fascinated young viewers was his car, a tricked-up 1982 Pontiac Firebird called Kitt.

Kitt was essentially a super-computer on wheels, able to drive itself and equipped with special features such as a turbo-boost that enabled the car to leap over obstacles. It could even withstand explosive blasts and small arms fire.

When he was in a tight spot, Michael Knight, the crime-fighter played by Hasselhoff, could summon Kitt much as cowboy heroes in previous generations whistled up their faithful horses. Kitt could even talk, using a voice synthesiser.

Watching Knight Rider with my kids all those years ago, I never imagined how quickly real-world technology would catch up with Hollywood fantasy – but it seems car manufacturers are starting to produce models that come creepily close to emulating Kitt.

I recently read, for example, that it’s theoretically possible to drive the latest top-of-the-range Audi A8 through the centre of a busy city without having to do much more than steer it.

Like Kitt, the new flagship Audi can “see”. It has front-mounted radar sensors that scan the road ahead and ensure the car remains a safe distance from the vehicle in front. If the vehicle in front stops, the Audi’s “stop and go” mechanism will bring the car to a halt with about four metres to spare. The driver doesn’t have to do a thing.

If the stop is only brief the Audi will move off again, without any prompting, once the car in front has proceeded. Spooky.

But wait, there’s more. The car has a night vision function that uses a thermal imaging camera to detect people on the road in front – very handy if any yokels are staggering home from the pub after closing time – and will highlight the person in red and sound a warning if anyone strays into the car’s firing line.

I couldn’t help thinking this would be a useful device in the Australian Outback, where night-time collisions with kangaroos are a constant hazard. (Once, travelling on an overnight bus from Adelaide to Alice Springs, I discovered when we stopped briefly in the opal mining settlement of Coober Pedy that a big grey ’roo had been collected along the way and was wedged, well and truly dead, under the front bumper. I assumed the unfortunate animal would be removed before we continued on our way, but no; it remained there, scraping along the highway all the way to Alice, 700 km further on.)

But I digress; back to the Audi.

There’s a touch-sensitive control pad on the car’s central console on which the driver can enter a phone number or destination simply by tracing the letters or numbers with a finger. The car will do the rest, dialling the number or automatically entering the destination into the GPS system and letting satellite navigation take over.

If the car anticipates a frontal collision, it closes the windows and sunroof, activates the hazard warning lights, tensions the seatbelts and slams on the brakes – all in roughly half a second. Kitt would be impressed and possibly even envious, given that he had quite a sensitive ego.

All this comes at a price, of course. The Audi A8 will set you back $240,000. But if we’ve learned anything over the past couple of decades, it’s that technological innovation starts out being affordable only to the most wealthy but soon becomes commonplace. Early adopters have learned this to their cost.

Just consider the automotive features, now taken for granted, that were once considered to be at the very cutting-edge of technology.

It seems extraordinary now, but 50 years ago it was possible to buy a new car that had neither a heater nor a radio. One of the reasons Japanese car makers made such inroads into the New Zealand market in the 1960s and 70s was that they incorporated, as standard equipment, features that complacent British and Australian manufacturers (which enjoyed market dominance only because preferential tariffs made them cheaper than the competition) treated as luxury extras.

Reversing lights and power steering were virtually unheard of then. You needed the forearms of Sylvester Stallone to wrestle the heavy tanks of the time around corners or into parking spaces.

Automatic transmissions were still a novelty too. Most cars had clunky three-speed manual transmissions with gear levers mounted on the steering column. In about 1961, when the father of a boy in my harriers’ club got a brand-new automatic EK Holden, the first Holden to boast such a feature, we all wanted to be his friend so we could ride in this wondrous machine to our Saturday races.

Safety features were not a priority then. Primitive seat belts started to appear only in the 1960s, radial tyres didn’t replace cross-plies until the 1970s and disc brakes didn’t become commonplace until the 1980s.

The thought that in the future we would be able to lock and unlock cars by remote control, or that cars would have computerised electronic stability control systems and parking sensors that beep when you get too close to the vehicle behind, would have seemed the stuff of pure fantasy. Heck, I even remember getting excited when I acquired my first car with an intermittent windscreen wiper function and a knob for dimming the dashboard lights (it was a Fiat – Australian and British cars didn’t boast such features until years later.)

Car radios didn’t become standard items until the late 1960s, but the car I drive now has a six-CD stereo that I can operate without taking my hands off the steering wheel. What’s more, the volume automatically adjusts depending on how fast I’m going. How smart is that?

My car has features I’ve never used, despite having owned it for nearly three years. Cruise control, for example. Frankly, I could never see the point of it. And I’m yet to be convinced of the merits of keyless locking, which still regularly confounds me.

Next month, on a trip to Australia, I’m going to use a satellite navigation system for the first time. I don’t think I'll need it, having found my way around Australia without such aids in the past, but my brother lent me his TomTom and assures me it’s the way to go, so I’ll give it a try. I'm no tech-head, but I'm still curious.

However I won’t be able to avoid thinking about the Aussie couple who arrived in Christchurch in the middle of the night a few years ago, tried to find their way to Nelson using their rental car’s sat nav and ended up stranded on the Rainbow Road, a four-wheel drive route through the remote Spenser Mountains. They were found the next day and guided to safety by a shepherd.

No doubt the $240,000 Audi comes equipped with a foldout motel unit, complete with queen-sized bed, spa pool and espresso machine, in the event of such emergencies.

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