The Self-Driving Car, 1938 and 1985 Editions

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Google's announcement of small but successful trials of self-driving cars induces glee in any right-thinking tech nerd. As far as tech dreams go, self-driving cars are up there with helicopter-based ecotopias and jetpacks. The whole idea has been tickling our fancy since long before we could even conceive of the tech that could make it work.

I am bringing you a little bit of historical context here not to denigrate Google's achievement of 1,000 miles of autonomous driving, but merely for fun.

Here's the Pittsburgh Press from December of 1938. This self-driving car mention is pegged to the introduction of the, umm, self-heating hot dog.

forwardbark.jpgAnd the Ottawa Citizen from August 13, 1985. What's great about this one is the way it transitions seamlessly from anti-lock brakes to the vision of a self-driving car. Here's the most relevant snippet:

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The drunk argument has particular historical resonance because drunk driving became a terrible problem at the outset of the automobile's introduction. Though people had gone out boozing and then had to take their carts home sloshed, before the car, the "sober horse" had helped corral the problem, as Horseless Age once noted:

What has saved the situation until the appearance of the automobile was the drunken man drove a sober horse. In automobilism, when the man is drunk or careless, the machine is so, too, because it has no will or habits of its own. Its speed and ponderosity both get blind staggers. Should not this be something deserving of special recognition in the methods adopted for traffic regulation? Is a 'plain drunk' who is subject to arrest for disorderly conduct when his weight is 200 pounds and his speed 5 miles per hour-- is he still a 'plain drunk' or a serious menace to society when his weight becomes 2,000 pounds and his possible momentum 100,000 foot-pounds....
I've long argued that the best solution to drunk driving is to encourage the construction of denser, transit-connected cities that don't require you to drive to the places where you want to go out, but I guess self-driving cars could work, too.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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