Predicting the Driverless Car (in 1958)

The automated car of the past would have relied on an electrified road.

Science Digest via Modern Mechanix

Driverless cars feel very of-the-moment. Though Google has been developing its artificial-intelligence-piloted vehicles for a while now, those vehicles have only recently made the transition from "far-fetched dream" to "whoa, this could actually happen." In February, Nevada approved rules for testing driverless cars on state roads. And in March, California introduced a bill that would legalize the same kind of testing.

But self-driving cars, it turns out, have been both a dream and an imminent reality since long before Larry and Sergey and their bot-beanied nerdcars came along.

The blog Modern Mechanix has uncovered an article -- originally published in Electronic Age magazine, and then condensed and republished in the April 1958 issue of Science Digest -- describing an experiment with auto-drive features in cars. Though the experiments in question resemble cruise control, the article describing them hints, breathlessly, at the blissful possibilities of the driverless car.

Some day in the future when you drive onto a superhighway, you'll reach over to your dashboard and push the button marked "Electronic Drive." Selecting your lane, you'll settle back to enjoy the ride as your car adjusts itself to the prescribed speed. You may prefer to read or carry on a conversation with your passengers--or even to catch up on your office work. It makes no difference for the next several hundred miles as far as the driving is concerned.

Fantastic? Not at all. 

"Electronic Drive," in the experiments Electronic Age describes, relied on innovations both within the car and within the road. It used detector circuits buried under the road's pavement to connect, in turn, both to a series of lights along the edges of that road and to the cars themselves -- which were equipped with radio receivers and audio-visual warning devices that would "simulate automatic steering and brake control." 

The experiments, in other words, used a system that allowed specially designed cars, and specially designed highways, to communicate with each other.  

And the experimenters found, among other things, that the cars using the rudimentary system of "Electronic Drive" were able to: 

• Provide automatic warning to a driver following too closely behind another vehicle,

• Indicate to a driver the presence of a parked vehicle or other obstacle in the highway ahead,

• Guide a car accurately along its traffic lane even under conditions of zero visibility for the driver, and

• Cause remote operation of warning lights ahead at points of merging traffic, or along the roadside for any distance ahead of or behind a moving vehicle not equipped with special equipment.

Today's driverless cars, of course, have their innovations contained within their structures -- no special roads required. Still, the vision hasn't changed that much since 1958. "Ultimately," the article concludes, "automatic control devices would sense suitable opportunities for passing and would change routes in response to a program preset on an electronic computer in the vehicle. The driver would have to take over only as he left the highspeed road system."

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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