"This looks like Darth Vader's bathroom," says Michael Knight the first time he gets into his new car.
He's right that something's different. This car, named K.I.T.T. (Knight Industries Two Thousand), is not a typical black Pontiac Trans Am. Its blinking, talking, computerized dashboard has features like auto pursuit, emergency eject, and x-ray surveillance systems. K.I.T.T. can turbojet into the air over obstacles like trucks and trains, and accelerate to 300 miles pre hour. It also comes with a super-tough exterior.
Most drivers are satisfied with AM/FM radio and air conditioning. But Michael Knight (played by actor David Hasselhoff) is no ordinary joyrider. He and K.I.T.T. battle the forces of evil on NBC-TV's Knight Rider. Every week, K.I.T.T. displays his computer-powered prowess. But could such a super car exist?
ENTER wanted to separate fact from fiction. So we went behind the scenes and talked to the creators of Knight Rider and to computer experts. We found out what technology it would take for a car to really do all those stunts. And we discovered how Knight Rider's creators make the impossible seem real.
Michael Knight's supercar, K.I.T.T., zooms, leaps and talks-with help from friends.
A top-notch stunt crew, 12 different look-alike stunt cars, and all kinds of camera tricks put K.I.T.T. through its amazing paces. Without this Hollywood help, K.I.T.T.'s wizardry might never get off the ground.
For example: In nearly every episode of Knight Rider, K.I.T.T. retro-rockets over a tractor-trailer or a train, then lands back on the ground. Nifty - but could it really happen?
"In a car K.I.T.T.'s size, there's no room for a jet engine big enough to send the car up," says Dr. Jearl Walker, professor of physics at Cleveland State University. "Furthermore, neither car nor driver would survive the impact when it comes in for its landing." Ouch!
But the Knight Rider stunt team does several of these leaps every week, says Bob Ewing, the show's associate producer. The car and driver always survive.
A specially built stunt car performs K.I.T.T.'s incredible leaps.
"We have two jump cars," says Ewing. These cars look identical to K.I.T.T., but are made of lightweight fiberglass and contain high-powered engines. A stunt driver races this fiberglass car at high speed toward a hidden ramp. That ramp sends the car up into the air, then down to another hidden ramp angled for a safe landing. The car leaps over real trains and trucks. The stunts are timed to the split-second to make certain no one is in danger.
"We've never had an accident," Ewing says proudly. If a stunt is too dangerous, we don't do it."
How does the driver survive? Jump cars can be specially built to survive leaps - but why doesn't the driver get thrown out of the car by the impact? That's easy, says Ewing: "Our stuntman is tied into that car every which way but Sunday."
Of course, sometimes K.I.T.T. doesn't even have a driver. When Michael is in trouble, he simply radios his four-wheeled sidekick. K.I.T.T. goes into its auto-cruise mode and races to the rescue.
The auto-cruise feature is not impossible, according to Dr. Walker. Airplanes, for instance, can operate on "automatic pilot," using radar and computers to navigate to their destination. However, a plane doesn't have to pass intersections or buildings while flying across the sky.
What would it take to build a computer car like K.I.T.T.?
'Electronic wizardry' and a lot of cash, says one auto expert.
"You'd need a structure the size of a truck to hold a computer large enough to make the decisions K.I.T.T. makes while auto-cruising down the block," says Dr. Walker. "Whether or not you'd want to trust your safety to such a (computer) program is another question."
The Knight Rider crew gets around this question by using two tricks
that make it look like K.I.T.T. is driving itself. In some scenes,
explains Bob Ewing, K.I.T.T. is filmed so you can't tell that the car
is actually being towed by a truck. In other scenes, where a towing
cable might be visible, K.I.T.T. has a backseat driver. The driver is
hidden in the back seat behind dark glass. The glass acts as a kind of
two-way mirror. The driver can see out, but the camera - and the
audience - can't see in.
That's The Brakes
Some K.I.T.T. effects are easy. K.I.T.T. is supposed to be able to go up to 300 miles per hour (MPH). To make the car appear to go this fast, K.I.T.T.'s creators show the speedometer spinning higher and higher. Then, they switch to a shot of the car zooming down the road at high - but not 300 MPH - speeds.
In reality, the idea of such a high-speed car is not farfetched, says Terry Thiel, an electronics engineer with the Ford Motor Company. After all, stock car racers often travel at speeds up to 160 MPH. But while 300 MPH is possible, putting on the brakes at that speed is another matter.
Computers can't drive on two wheels, but stunt drivers can.
NBC boasts that K.I.T.T., going 70 MPH, can stop in 14 feet.
"That's a little out of this world," Thiel responds. "A car going that
speed couldn't keep the tires on its wheels if it tried to stop so
abruptly. It'd be like somebody's sneakers getting caught as they were
running - the sneakers would stop and the person would keep going."
But K.I.T.T. doesn't worry about stopping, or about fender benders, bullets or crashing through walls. That's because the car's exterior is supposedly made of super-tough material. Such metals exist, but none are light enough to be used on today's cars.
The Knight Rider crew uses some Hollywood tricks to make K.I.T.T. appear invulnerable. Whenever you see someone trying to smash the car, says Ewing, they're using rubber crowbars and hammers that bounce harmlessly off the car. When someone shoots at the car, there are no bullets in the gun. Instead, the Knight Rider crew uses small explosive charges mounted on the car and detonated off-camera from a control board. These charges release sparks that look like bullets ricocheting off the car. When K.I.T.T. crashes through a wall, that wall is made of balsa wood or other breakaway material.
The show has a dozen K.I.T.T. look-alikes to use for these various stunts. "K.I.T.T. survives everything," says Ewing. "It's the other cars that get smashed."
K.I.T.T. also comes equipped with personality. This talking computer gets angry and upset when Michael Knight is in trouble. Can a machine really have feelings and personality?
"Sometimes a computer seems to have a mind of its own - for instance, when you don't know what it's doing," says Margaret Dean, a computer affairs coordinator with the City College of New York. "But a computer does not feel emotion."
K.I.T.T.'s voice: William Daniels.
K.I.T.T. definitely has a personality. That personality comes through in its voice - which is really the voice of actor William Daniels. "I see K.I.T.T. as a Renaissance man. He has a sense of moral values and justice," the actor says. You'll be please to know Daniels doesn't have to hide in the trunk to speak his lines. He goes to the studio and tapes his part. Later, these lines are spliced into the show's soundtrack.
Yet, for all these stunts, special effects and high-tech tricks, the question remains: Could a car like K.I.T.T. really exist?
Some computer experts believe you could create a vehicle with today's technology that can do just about anything K.I.T.T. can. But according to the experts, that vehicle wouldn't look much like a sleek black Trans Am. It would have to be an enormous truck with super-thick steel plating, reinforced tires, extraordinary shock absorbers and a jet engine inside. It wouldn't be very pretty, but it is conceivable.
"Most of K.I.T.T.'s features are just electronic wizardry that can be done or developed if you want to spend the money," says Ford engineer Terry Thiel. "The bottom line is that it's possible."