The Original "Jurassic Park" Ford Explorers Were Self-Driving—But How?

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

We armchair analyze the circa-1993 autonomous driving tech in the iconic dinosaur movie.

Way back in the early '90s a visionary director teamed up with some of the most creative minds in the movie business to produce an incredible forward-looking epic, a cautionary tale about the impact that science would have on the future of humankind. Jurassic Park didn't only set box office records, the movie also served to illustrate technologies and concepts that were just beginning to creep into the public's awareness.

We're not talking about genetic engineering or the perils of playing god while reviving an extinct species of deadly carnivore No, we're focused on the other futuristic technology that played a starring role in Spielberg's dino disaster flick: self-driving cars—specifically a gaggle of first-generation Ford Explorers that are mostly destroyed by the end of the movie.

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Secret Self-Driving SUVs

Even though the original novel had park visitors riding around in Toyota Land Cruisers, on screen, the official Jurassic Park chariots were customized original Ford Explorers. Aside from their brush guards and auxiliary lighting, perhaps the most obvious modifications made to the factory-fresh Fords was the installation of a full glass bubble roof (a detail that would enhance a terrifying T-Rex-on-Explorer scene in the movie).

A closer look at each of the Explorers used in filming reveals details that rarely make it into the dozens of tribute trucks that have been built by loving fans over the years. Nestled between the bumper bars and just below the grille sit a pair of what are clearly optical sensors—and just above them, a downward-facing camera that's not aimed at any sauropod. Zoom in on the interior of each SUV and there's another telltale clue in some shots in the form of a second sensor suite positioned on the dashboard just behind the steering wheel (where the gauge cluster would traditionally be placed).

It was easy to miss these details the first time around—or even the 57th time around, depending on how much of a Jurassic Park superfan you might be—because back in 1993 when the movie was first released there was no pop culture context for what a self-driving car might look like. It also doesn't help that none of these gadgets were ever once referenced in the film by any of the characters, further obscuring their role in how the park operated. That being said, with semi-autonomous driver's aides now commonplace on even affordable automobiles the appearance of these plus-size sensors sticks out like a glaring red beacon that predicted the future many motorists are living today.

Tracking Down The "Track"

There's a further wrinkle about how the Jurassic Park Explorers were presented that served to mask their self-driving tech: each of the SUVs in the park travels along a clearly visible metallic track that runs directly beneath the middle of the vehicles.

At first glance it's easy to make the assuming that the Fords are in fact tethered to the track itself, especially given that they're electric vehicles. The audience finds out the latter when a character back at the park's HQ references the battery level in the SUVs, which indicates that they're not being tugged along, or even directly powered, by that strip of metal at all.

So why is it there? We're never told directly, and it's possible that those scenes were left on the cutting room floor as being a little too expository about a Jurassic Park feature that's clearly tangential to the no-longer-extinct main attractions. From our vantage point in the future, however, it's possible to suss out the details of the park's self-driving systems.

Piecing It All Together

Our best guess for the basic design of the self-driving systems in Jurassic Park's Ford Explorers is that they're of the car-to-X variety. This means the vehicles communicate with infrastructure around them to figure out where to go. To that end, the Explorers seem to make use of optical sensors that aren't focused on the road ahead so much as they are on that strip of track weaving through the dino park. While image processing technology capable of guiding a vehicle based on a video feed didn't exist in a commercially deployable way in 1993, neither did the genetic tomfoolery that birthed dinosaurs using frog DNA and amber-trapped mosquitoes.

There are multiple ways to bring this particular piece of movie magic into the real world. It's easy to sci-fi a setup that used cameras to pick up the shape of the metal track against the background of the terrain and use that to steer the trucks. Alternatively, those wide bulbous sensors just underneath the video camera could have been employed to pick up a spectrum of light that's not visible to the human eye. Infrared emitters were a well-understood technology that had been in use for over a decade at the time of production, and embedding this equipment in the track would not have been a difficult task. The real challenge, as with the video system described above, is writing the code and finding the processing power to make use of the data provided by the sensors.

There's also a clue that the track could have been used to provide power to the vehicles through induction. Despite no visible point of contact, dialogue during the movie suggests that the batteries in the Explorers that keep the headlights shining even after the electrical grid goes down were used as backups to a more robust electrical system. This is further evidenced by the way the trucks stop in front of the T-Rex paddock after the park's power failure, rather than continuing to a safe haven.

If the track was indeed "live" like the third rail in a subway, it introduces another intriguing possibility for guiding the SUVs through their dino-safari. Some industrial applications use low-frequency guidance signals embedded in factory floors and warehouse layouts that can be used by forklifts and delivery trucks to find their way to the right shelf or pallet. It's possible, although less likely given how many optical sensors we see attached to the Explorers, that the Fords were steering using a similar system while the track was receiving power.

Of course, all of this is speculation as to how the period trucks could have achieved autonomy—but in several scenes, the Ford Explorers appear to be really driving themselves, with the steering wheels moving and the vehicles accelerating and braking on their own. Or were they? During the actual movie production, to lend the effect of self-driving, the Explorers used in those scenes were modified with redundant controls in the cargo area, hidden from view. So, they were human-driven, but by someone stuffed in the trunk.

A Different Future

There's a key difference between the self-driving technologies used by the Jurassic Park Explorers and those deployed by the driver's aides found on modern vehicles. The movie trucks were intended to operate in a controlled environment with no other traffic, a closed system (you know, ignoring the marauding T-Rexes and such), and so passive low-power signals and/or basic camera and optical sensor processing were enough to carry the day.

Out on the road, it's a different story. In dynamic environment, with other cars, trucks, pedestrians, and cyclists vying for the use of the same limited road space, technologies such as stereoscopic cameras, radar, lidar, and sonar are all used to look in all directions as distantly as possible and provide reams of data to software that can process millions of different data points per second. It's a far more complex situation, and one that moves at a speed much quicker than the 20 mph or so exhibited by the Fords in the park.

Still, even with all of our technological advances in the three decades or so since Jurassic Park hit theaters, we're a long way from having any true self-driving vehicles on public roads. Each and every semi-autonomous, self-steering, or adaptive cruise control system out there is currently only an interim step towards completely removing human input from the highway equation—at best achieving Level 2 autonomy per the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) scale here in America. SAE Level 3 systems (full self driving is Level 5) are just entering customer hands in Japan, but again, that's a smaller country with a road network that's easier to map than the vast, crumbling infrastructure you'd find here in the U.S. Until the next-generation of hyper-accurate maps and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I)vehicle-to-everything (V2X) and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication appear on the horizon, we won't be able to live Jurassic Park's self-driving dream outside the well-defined confines of its spared-no-expense gates. While self-driving tech remains elusive nearly 30 years after Jurassic Park premiered, we are close to one of its predictions: An all-electric Ford Explorer is on the horizon.