How to Turn Your Self-Driving Car Into a Time Machine

The vehicles of the future might be able to transport passengers to the distant past.

A digital time-travel display inside a DeLorean DMC-12, which appeared on the red carpet at the Back to the Future 30th Anniversary screening in Manhattan, in 2015.
The time-travel display of a DeLorean DMC-12, which appeared on the red carpet at the Back to the Future 30th Anniversary screening in Manhattan, in 2015. (Andrew Kelly / Reuters)

The self-driving car’s greatest promise is that it will buy its passengers that most precious and finite of resources: time.

First there is the promise of more time on this planet, given the overwhelmingly superior safety record of a driverless car compared with a human-driven one. Then there is all the time you get when you’re not the one driving—hands free from the wheel, eyes free from the road—and you are instead able to read a book, enjoy a beer, practice an instrument, knit a tea cozy, or, you know, just chill out. And finally there’s the actual transit time saved, countless human commutes made smoother in a world where robot cars communicate with one another constantly, establishing smooth and freely flowing traffic patterns.

But there’s another way that self-driving cars might change our relationship with time, and it starts with the maps that are needed to make driverless cars work in the first place.

It’s crucial for a self-driving vehicle to know, within centimeters, exactly where it is on the road at any given time. The need for this precision is non-negotiable. A few inches of inaccuracy in the wrong direction, and suddenly your car is veering into the neighboring traffic lane, or crunching its fender in a failed parallel-parking effort, or sideswiping a guardrail on I-95. The technology isn’t perfect yet, but it’s getting there: Driverless vehicles orient themselves based on a constant flow of super-detailed input data from both cameras and GPS. But the self-driving vehicles that eventually take over the roadways will require far more precision than even the best satellite imagery alone can offer.

“The level of density and information you need for mapping for driverless is much higher and much harder to collect, with a lot more data associated with it,”  Brian McClendon, a vice president at Uber and an expert in geospatial data visualization, told me over the summer.

This kind of data won’t just make better maps. It could allow for some wild in-car experiences. Consider, for example, what sorts of virtual layers might be added to a self-driving car’s mapping data. Most obviously are the commercial applications for augmented reality in a driverless environment. Perhaps, for example, there will be ethereal billboards that appear only to individual car passengers, but aren’t built in the physical world—essentially location-specific, ultra-targeted pop-up ads. (Nightmares, I know.) Or maybe passengers will be notified when they’re within a one-mile radius as a pre-selected group of friends or family.

Or, and here’s where the time travel comes in, perhaps you’ll be able to filter your commute or road trip by the year.

Hear me out! Let’s imagine there’s some cool new immersive app that lets you select a year in history on your drive across Manhattan. Want to catch a glimpse of Bob Dylan walking to a gig on Macdougal Street? Set your car’s dial to 1968. Or, to witness a zeppelin landing on the dirigible dock of the Empire State Building, drive into the year 1931. Want to drive alongside a crowd of 1,000 people marching to the lower tip of the island for the inaugural lighting of the Statue of Liberty’s torch? Head on over to October 28, 1886. (Granted, the fireworks that night were rained out, and the torch light malfunctioned, but hey!)

Combining augmented reality with super-precise location data and real archival video and audio footage (plus a mix of actor reenactments and CGI) could revive the past like never before. Not that it would be easy. To build an app that would give users a truly comprehensive and immersive trip to the past—and the sense that they could pick virtually any time and place in history to visit—would require an enormous amount of work. But just the idea that it’s theoretically technologically possible is exciting.

For a rough sense of what I’m imagining, consider Lockheed Martin’s augmented-reality trip to Mars:

There are clear opportunities for education and entertainment with this kind of technology. Imagine an augmented reality version of the classic computer game, Oregon Trail, that actually takes you cross-country. Okay, okay. Such a road trip would be time consuming and gas guzzling to the point of impracticality, sure, but can we at least agree that it’s a cool idea? You could also imagine setting your in-car time machine back to the cretaceous, and watching as the vehicle cruised between the legs of an Alamosaurus.

Together, augmented reality and self-driving cars might usher in the age of the drive-through film—think of it as a distant cousin to the drive-in movies of the 20th century—in which a movies use a person’s location or mobility as a storytelling device.

I wouldn’t mind, for example, a remastered version of the Back to the Future trilogy that’s made with a driverless-car passenger in mind. Such a film might give the viewer the vantage point of being inside the DeLorean time machine for some key scenes, maybe toggling between action depicted on a screen in your backseat and through the windows of your car. You’d be time traveling without having to gun it to 88 miles per hour. (Or, you know, without having to invent an actual time machine.)

The larger point is that, atop the huge promises of self-driving cars in the real world, we are only just beginning to conceive of how the technology could allow a new realm for playfulness. Driverlessness will change the way we move through cities, yes, but it will also create new opportunities to escape to other times and places—all while still getting you where you’re going.