The Cult of Cars, Racing and Everything That Moves You.
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I Have Important New Questions About The Johnnycabs In Total Recall

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Screenshot: Total Recall

I love old action movies, I adore Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I have patterned the aesthetics of my entire existence off of late ’80s cyberpunk. As a result, I re-re-re-watched Total Recall recently and paid attention to much more banal details than I had previously. Specifically, these things.

Gif: Total Recall (1990 (TriStar Pictures)

If you’ve never seen Total Recall, you should! It’s an absolute blast of a cyberpunk hell future movie, and their cars are way cooler than the cyberpunk hell future we’re all currently living through. Either way though, this is a Johnnycab, a seemingly-ubiquitous autonomous taxi, driven by these creepy uncanny-valley as hell robot dudes presumably named Johnny.


The Johnnycabs are completely capable of driving without passenger input, with the exception of destination. When Arnie is first seen in one, he’s been knocked out cold and has to be reminded of where he is and is already on his way home. The Johnny swivels around and talks directly at Schwarzenegger, so we have already ruled out that the animatronic cab driver is in the car as a sensory device, and is here for... Rider comfort and interaction? Clearly, the car drives just fine while he’s not looking at the street.

Here’s where my intense confusion about just what the hell is up with these autonomous cars begins. A handful of scenes later, Arnold is neck-deep in a ’90s Arnold Movie Moment, and needs to escape from a half dozen baddies with machine guns. He commandeers a Johnnycab.

He physically rips the Johnny out of the driver’s control area, leans forward, and floors it with the dashboard joystick. The cab rips a wicked burnout as he peels away from the baddies. I have several issues.


For one, why on Earth does the cab have a zero lockout, unguarded joystick with which the cab can be commandeered and then driven? Later in the movie, we see that the only method that Arnold is being tracked by is the physical GPS locator that has been implanted in his skull. He’s being chased by a government that has the power to put a tracking device in his skull, and yet they can’t track the car he has forcibly stolen, so presumably this thing is completely off the grid. Is this not the easiest way to steal a car ever invented? If you’re strong enough, simply snap a flimsy robot dude off his base and then you get a free, completely untracked cab? The Johnny isn’t holding the stick, but as we see just a few scenes later, the vehicle is capable of some autonomy, as it attempts to run over Arnie for skipping his fare, which it still somehow calculates.


This fare-dodging response does raise a whole lot of ethical questions about their enforcement strategy. To be fair, maybe they just did a good job of predicting the future. Either way, the fact that this cab is so easily commandeered, and yet still capable of driving itself, calculating the distance it’s driven, and speaking to the hijacker/rider raises questions why the joystick ever worked at ALL or was even accessible without some kind of maintenance key. It makes sense it would need manual controls for repair scenarios, but I still cannot figure out what scenario would justify any sufficiently buff rider being able to just drive off with a new space-wedge car.

My line of questioning doesn’t end here, unfortunately for those of you tired of hearing about old science fiction movies. This chase scene and repeated burnouts, combined with the violent explosion at the close of the scene, leads me to wonder exactly what the hell propels these cars. A 30 MPH front impact in an ICE car generally does not lead to a massive fireball explosion, and these fairly lackadaisical cabs have now accelerated fairly fast twice in the movie so far. Clearly, some sort of alternative propulsion is in play here, but I refuse to believe that in the year 2084 electric cars are blowing up like South Park gag vehicles. This leads me to propose that the Johnnycabs are powered by rear dual electric motors, a common feature on lower-end EVs today, but instead of batteries, are powered with incredibly janky hydrogen fuel cells. The benefits could be plenty–efficient, cheap fuel, more room for passengers and stowage and less spent on engine or battery space–and there’s only apparently one downside, which is that the car violently explodes upon tapping a wall. Based on the complete lack of deformation or absorption of the impact, however, occupant safety does appear to rank low on the design priority list. This is the only thing I feel I can explain.


If you wish to watch the entire two minutes of runtime this cab appears in the movie, the relevant clips are below! Please feel free to hit me with your best theories on what the hell is goin’ on here.