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I know long ago they would have the car stationary and use a projector screen to with moving scenery to make it look like the car was moving. It was obviously staged, but good enough. I've seen "behind the scenes" video clips and still showing some sort of filming rig on an actual car that isn't on a set, but that seems way to dangerous for anything of any complexity.

So I am assuming they have come a long way with the stationary car on a set, and they mix that with a real car with cameras mounted on it. Is this accurate? If not, how do they make it look so real and still keep everyone safe?

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up vote 16 down vote accepted

Another common technique is to use a "process trailer", aka an insert trailer or low loader. It is used as a moving camera platform and is towed by a special truck-like vehicle that may contain cameras, booms and or lights. The process trailers are generally very low to the ground to give a realistic perspective of height. They can expand in width to allow a camera to be placed along the side, for example to film actors speaking through a side window. Note the safety bars in the first picture below so the crew don't fall off the trailer while it is moving.

Some companies renting this type of equipment are Action Camera Cars and Shotmaker.

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If they only need to shoot from the front, and not from the side, they can dispense with the trailer altogether and simply tow the car behind the film truck:

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In either the case, the actor playing the driver doesn't actually drive the car, but they must appear to be driving, same as if chroma key was being used with a stationary car on a set.

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This explains the gap in my understanding - how they can have a physically moving vehicle that appears to be operated by the actors, but still be safe. –  Jim McKeeth Apr 14 '12 at 17:11
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The technique you are talking about with stationary car on set is called Chroma key compositing or chroma keying:

is a special effects / post-production technique for compositing (layering) two images or video streams together, used heavily in many fields to remove a background from the subject of a photo or video - particularly the newscasting, motion picture and videogame industries.

Although it's a very old special effect it's very used even these days, with a big difference of course. So even today in car scenes technique is wildely used.

There are of course other ways of filming these scenes, when do you want to have maximum reality. One of them is using camera mounts, suction pads and vacuum mounts:

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You can film every scene you like with these gadgets.

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In really old movies it always looked like they had a projection screen behind the car with the scenery projected on it while filmed. It may have been chroma keying though. –  Jim McKeeth Apr 14 '12 at 17:13
    
Although this technique - cameras mounted on an actual car - means the car is being operated by the driver, which means they actually need to be driving. Thus the safety issue - if they are driving then having a dialog with a passenger seems like it would be dangerous. –  Jim McKeeth Sep 21 '12 at 19:43
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