Decades before Google started outfitting Lexus SUVs with sensors and self-driving software, the driverless car du jour was an otherwise ordinary-looking Pontiac.
In the 1920s and 1930s, a driverless car was more commonly known as a “phantom auto,” and demonstrations of the technology drew thousands of spectators in cities across the United States.
These cars weren’t computer-driven, as they are today, but remote controlled. It’s not clear from newspaper archives and other written accounts how many were ever in existence, anyway, though we do get a general sense of how they worked: The person operating the car would often follow in a second vehicle some distance behind; or, in at least one case, in a low-flying airplane, according to a 1932 account in the Times Recorder of Zanesville, Ohio.
The car, which the newspaper called “one of the most amazing products of modern science,” could be operated from as far as five miles away, its inventor said. “It sounds unbelievable but it is true that the driverless car will travel about the city through the heaviest traffic—starting, stopping, sounding its horn, turning right or left, making U-turns and circles, and proceeding thus as though there were an invisible driver at the wheel,” the Times Recorder reported. To catch a glimpse of the phantom auto was to see “one of the most spectacular street events possible.”
The cars were driverless, in that they didn’t have a human behind the wheel, but they weren’t self-driving per se. This didn’t stop them from captivating the public. “From 1931 to 1949, [the radio engineer J.J.] Lynch gave demonstrations of the remote-controlled vehicle in 37 of the 48 US states,” wrote Fabian Kröger in a sprawling report on the technical, legal, and social aspects of self-driving cars. “He manipulated the brakes, steering wheel and horn of the vehicle driving in front of him with the aid of a morse key. A spherical antenna received the code, although there are also reports of a wire between the vehicles.”
At the same time, Kröger points out, driverless vehicles were cemented in the popular imagination through their depiction in fantasy novels like Werner Illing’s Utopolis, which features a self-steering car. “The most wonderfullest thing about it was that the car … behaved as if it had learnt all possible traffic rules by heart,” Illing wrote. In 1935, the writer David H. Keller wrote about a driverless car that was voice activated in The Living Machine:
Old people began to cross the continent in their own cars. Young people found the driverless car admirable for petting. The blind for the first time were safe. Parents found they could more safely send their children to school in the new car than in the old cars with a chauffeur.
Decades later, KITT, the sentient automobile from Knight Rider, became the best known fictional car you could talk to. Incidentally, it was a Pontiac; just like the actual phantom autos of the 1930s.