K.I.T.T., The First Real “Smart Car”

KITT - Knight Rider Car

Any child, or even fan, of the 80s is familiar with the popular crime fighting series, “Knight Rider,” and its actor-singer star, David Hasselhoff. The NBC television show ran from 1982-1986. “The Hoff” played Michael Knight, a modern day cowboy and classic defender of “the innocent, the helpless, the powerless in a world of criminals who operate above the law …A lone crusader in the dangerous world …the world of the Knight Rider.” Every cowboy needs a horse, and Michael’s was a car named K.I.T.T.

 

Michael Long, a police officer in the line of duty, is shot in the face by the criminals. A dying billionaire, Wilton Knight, strongly believes that one man can make a difference in the world. He rescues Michael from his terminal injuries, convincing him to continue his fight against crime and injustice – but with a fresh face and a new identity. To that end, Michael Long is pronounced dead, and Michael Knight, “lone crusader,” is born. Michael Long agrees to work for FLAG (Foundation for Law And Government) to uncover all that is evil, and above the law, using only his mind and his car. So when the television show’s biography describes Michael Knight as a “lone crusader,” it doesn’t mean this superhero is without a sidekick. The second half of this dynamic duo, Super Car K.I.T.T. (Knight Industries Two Thousand made by Knight Industries 2000), is the fastest, safest, strongest, and smartest car in the world …and the real star of the TV show, Knight Rider. It has been suggested that David Hasselhoff’s character was simply a plot device used to give K.I.T.T. instructions and create comical banter.

“This looks like Darth Vader’s bathroom,” quips Michael Knight the first time he sits in his new Super Car. The K.I.T.T. car is not your average black, 1982 Pontiac Trans Am. It sports a virtually indestructible exterior body with a lighted, talking, flashing, computer powered dashboard inside. This Car Crusader’s classic red, pulsating scanner features advanced artificial intelligence, with the ability to converse and drive itself, high-tech communications and sensors, and modes like turbo boost, auto pursuit, emergency eject and x-ray surveillance. Once the vehicle is in “hot pursuit,” K.I.T.T. can turbo jet, get airborne over obstacles and other cars, accelerating up to a blazing fast 300 miles per hour.

Pop culture car enthusiasts internationally have questioned whether K.I.T.T. could functionally exist in the real world. What technology would it take for a car to actually perform all those stunts? Is this supercar possible, or did Knight Rider’s creators make the impossible seem real? In reality, K.I.T.T. jets, leaps and talks with the help of a high tech stunt crew, 12 matching stunt cars, and countless camera tricks. Without Hollywood’s help, K.I.T.T.’s computer powered prowess might never get the car off the ground.

Let’s start with K.I.T.T.’s superhero-like ability to leap. Most episodes of Knight Rider feature K.I.T.T. using his retro-rocket to soar over huge vehicles of every kind, and landing safely and smoothly on the other side. “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.” The Knight Rider stunt team performs several of these leaps weekly, claims Bob Ewing, the TV show’s associate producer, and both car and driver always survive to leap another day.

How do they do it? A specially built stunt car performs K.I.T.T.’s death defying leaps. “We have two jump cars,” says Ewing. These stunt cars look identical to K.I.T.T. to the eye, but are actually made of lightweight fiberglass and feature high-powered engines. A stunt driver races the fiberglass car, at high speed, toward a hidden ramp. It’s the ramp that makes the car appear to “leap” into the air! The stunt car then lands down, on yet another hidden ramp, which is specifically angled for its safe landing. Conclusion: The car really does leap over real trains and trucks …with a little help from its friends. “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? “Our stuntman is tied into that car every which way but Sunday,” jokes Ewing. K.I.T.T. doesn’t even need a driver. When Michael Knight is in trouble, he just radios his four-wheeled sidekick, sending K.I.T.T. into “auto-cruise” mode, and racing to the rescue. According to Dr. Walker, the auto-cruise feature is more realistic. For example, airplanes can operate on “automatic pilot,” which incorporates radar and computers to navigate to their destination. The fact that a plane flies over, not through intersections and buildings, is where we must use our imagination.

OK, time for the ultimate question at hand: What would it take to build K.I.T.T.?

Auto experts say you can build a computer car with ‘electronic wizardry’ and a lot of loot. Dr. Walker assures us, “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.” “Whether or not you’d want to trust your safety to such a (computer) program is another question.” The Knight Rider crew uses 2 tricks to make K.I.T.T., the car, appear to drive by itself. Bob Ewing leaks the big secret: sometimes K.I.T.T. is being towed by a truck, and others it has a backseat driver but the car is always filmed so you can’t tell! The backseat driver is hidden behind a dark, two-way mirror, allowing the driver to see out, but the camera, and viewing audience, cannot see in. The K.I.T.T. car drives itself through the magic of smoke and mirrors in action.

Some K.I.T.T. effects are more easily faked, like when the car races at up to 300 miles per hour (MPH). To create this illusion, K.I.T.T.’s creators simply show its speedometer going up to that amount, then cut to a shot of the car speeding down the road – but not at 300 MPH. Terry Thiel, an electronics engineer with the Ford Motor Company, claims such a high-speed car is possible, as stock cars race at up to 160 MPH. While traveling at 300 MPH is possible, putting on the brakes at that speed is still in question. NBC boasts that K.I.T.T. can stop in 14 feet while going 70 MPH. “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.”

Other K.I.T.T. features are down right impossible. For instance, the supercar comes equipped with its own personality. Yes, this driving, talking computer actually gets angry and upset when Michael Knight is in danger. The K.I.T.T. car’s voice is actually actor William Daniels, who tapes his part in a studio, and his lines are later spliced into the TV show’s soundtrack. “I see K.I.T.T. as a Renaissance man. He has a sense of moral values and justice,” Daniels feels. Can a real computer have a personality …and actual feelings? “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. doesn’t worry about stopping, crashing, or even gun fire, because the car’s exterior is supposedly made of a bullet proof body. Although such metals exist, none are light enough to be used on cars. Instead, the Knight Rider crew applies Hollywood hi-jinx to make K.I.T.T. appear unstoppable. For instance, when you see a villain trying to smash the car, says Ewing, they’re always using rubber crowbars and hammers. When K.I.T.T. crashes through a wall, that wall is only made of lightweight balsa wood or other breakaway material. When a criminal shoots K.I.T.T., it’s always with blanks. Small explosive charges mounted on the car are then detonated from a control board, off-camera. These release the sparks that appear to be bullets ricocheting off the car.

This brings us back to our original quandary – could the K.I.T.T. car really exist? Although the Knight Rider TV show referred to K.I.T.T. as a Trans Am early on, the brand-name drop was eliminated at the request of Pontiac. From then on, bystanders on the TV show simply referred to the car as a “black T-top.” The product placement was still blatantly obvious though, as buyers continued to request Trans Am cars with options that weren’t actually available on production models.

Computer experts claim you can create a car, using modern technology, to do everything K.I.T.T. can. BUT (and this is a BIG “BUT”) …that vehicle could not look like the sleek, black Trans Am named K.I.T.T. It would have to be a gigantic truck, with extremely thick, very heavy, steel plating, reinforced tires, super shock absorbers and nothing short of a jet engine under the hood. “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.” It’s possible …just not very pretty!

K.I.T.T. Car Pontiac Trans Am Specs

  • Year & Model: 1982 Pontiac Trans Am
  • Color: Black
  • Engine: Knight Industries turbojet with modified afterburners
  • Acceleration: 0-60mph > .2 seconds (with power boosters), Standing 1/4 mile > 4.286 sec @ 300mph
  • Transmission: 8 speed microprocessor turbodrive with auto pilot
  • Other Notables: Modified dash and steering, automatic pilot (auto cruise), turbo boost, ejector seat, electromagnetic hyper-vacuum disc brakes, satellite communications, x-ray surveillance, radar, electronic field disrupter, microwave zap, laser defense, traction spikes, voice analyzer, video recording and playback, grappling hook, ultraphonic chemical analyzer, ultramagnesium charges and T-Tops. For the final season, KITT was given the ability to transform into an armored high-speed mode, and given a convertible top to showcase Pontiac’s new convertible Trans Am.

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