William Daniels has no interest in getting into a talking, self-driving car, even though he’s famous for playing one.
For four seasons between 1982 and 1986, Williams voiced KITT – short for Knight Industries Two-Thousand – the autonomous and artificially intelligent black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am on the hit TV series Knight Rider.
With actor and future Baywatch star David Hasselhoff at the wheel, the show presaged the coming of self-driving cars with intelligent voice assistants. Its popularity as one of the era’s few science-fiction TV shows enshrined it as a pop-culture keystone, with a legacy that endures through remakes and homages.
Technology has advanced to the point where automakers are introducing vehicles with so-called level-three autonomy, where the car can handle most driving tasks without input from the driver. Level five, or full autonomy, is in testing and on the horizon.
Some are offering intelligent voice systems that drivers can talk to, including Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. In many ways, KITT is rapidly becoming a reality.
Daniels, however, isn’t sure he’s ready to hand over control to a machine.
“It would make me really nervous,” he says over the phone from his home near Los Angeles. “I’m too chicken. I wouldn’t trust it.”
The actor, now 92, recalls that his inclusion in Knight Rider started inauspiciously with a phone call from Glen Larson, the Midas-touch producer who churned out hit shows in the 1970s and 1980s including Quincy M.E., Magnum P.I. and The Fall Guy. Larson, who died in 2014, also had a knack for sci-fi, creating The Six Million Dollar Man, Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
In a 2009 interview, Larson revealed that the inspiration for Knight Rider came from a 1979 episode of B.J. and the Bear, in which the eponymous protagonist trucker and his pet chimpanzee come into conflict with police using a super-computer-outfitted car.
“It left a flavour in the air,” he said.
Daniels was part of the cast on medical drama St. Elsewhere at the time and considered himself a serious actor, winning two Emmy awards for his work on the show. He read the Knight Rider script with disdain.
“This was early on, before all these crazy things had happened on television,” he says. “I looked at it and said, ‘This is the voice of a car?’ [Larson] said yes and I said, ‘Uh huh. Okay.’”
Daniels took the job, but treated it as an easy pay cheque. He’d show up to a recording booth at Universal Studios and knock off an episode’s worth of lines in less than an hour. He didn’t meet Hasselhoff until a cast party later on in the first season. Their dialogue was patched together in post-production.
The show debuted on Sept. 26, 1982, and became a fast hit with young and old viewers alike. Kids loved KITT’s bevy of super abilities, such as “his” indestructible body and turbo boost, while adults enjoyed the buddy relationship between the car and Hasselhoff’s crime-fighting character Michael Knight.
Daniels and his wife Bonnie Bartlett, who was also starring on St. Elsewhere, realized the show had captured the zeitgeist a few seasons in while they were in a bar in Athens. The bartender, realizing who Daniels was, told him all their drinks were free.
“That was when we realized that this thing was going to be really big,” Bartlett says.
Since then, Daniels has resumed the role of KITT several times in spinoffs and one-off TV movies. In 2008, he also recorded lines for a GPS unit released by Taiwanese maker Mio Technology, which let drivers take directions from KITT himself.
He is also reprising the role in the coming film Superintelligence, starring Melissa McCarthy, a self-professed Knight Rider fan.
Daniels isn’t the only one associated with the original TV show who’s hesitant about fiction becoming reality. Harvey Laidman, who directed six episodes, considers himself an early adopter when it comes to automotive technology – he bought a Toyota Prius on day one – but he’s also in no rush to try a self-driving car.
“I’m very, very wary of autonomous vehicles,” he says. “I can’t conceive of them being safe.”
Their apprehension mirrors rising concerns with autonomy among the population at large. About 71 per cent of respondents to a poll earlier this year by the American Automobile Association said they aren’t sure whether they can trust self-driving vehicles, an increase from 63 per cent in 2017.
Gregory Dillano, who wrote six Knight Rider episodes, says the crux of the fear lies in giving up control.
“Sometimes you just want to get in the car and drive it. Relinquishing control entirely? I don’t know,” he says. “Transportation is just one part of driving a car. There’s this other side of it that’s going to be hard to overcome.”
The trick to acceptance, he says, may lie in giving cars personalities via their AI voice assistants, just like on Knight Rider.
“Once your hands aren’t on the steering wheel [in current vehicles] and guiding it some way … it doesn’t seem much like a relationship or a buddy thing.”
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