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Autonomous Cars Were Predicted In A Wizard of Oz Book

Illustration for article titled Autonomous Cars Were Predicted In A iWizard of Oz/i Book
Image: Reilly & Lee publishers/Jason Torchinsky

I don’t think we’ve ever really covered much about L. Frank Baum’s famous stories about the land Oz here before, mostly because the stories (and the famous movie) are pretty thin on cars. But that’s not to say there aren’t any things like cars. In fact, in one of the later Oz books, there’s something that sure as hell seems a lot like some of the autonomous cars being developed today. Only, you know, much more weird and magical.

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Illustration for article titled Autonomous Cars Were Predicted In A iWizard of Oz/i Book
Image: Reilly & Lee publishers

These cars are known as Scalawagons and they appear in the book Scalawagons of Oz, written in 1941. Even though most of us are really only familiar with the original Wizard of Oz, back in the day Oz was a massive series of 40 books, the first 14 written by Baum, and then others written by writers continuing the series.

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This particular one was written (and illustrated) by John R. Neill, who illustrated many Oz books since 1904 by a number of writers. Scalawagons of Oz was the 35th Oz book, and, while I don’t really know much about these books, I’m told by Oz-fetishists on the Internet that Neill was good at characters, but lousy at plot, and this book, apparently, is pretty thin on plot.

I don’t really care, though; what I care about are the Scalawagons themselves, which appear to be autonomous vehicles.

The book revolves around the Wizard’s plan to build a Scalawagon factory in Quadling Country (if you’ve read or seen Wicked you’ll recognize that as the poverty-stricken Southern Oz region where Elphaba, the Wicked Witch, grew up) and there’s some weird antagonist and whatever, but let’s stay focused on these cars.

Here’s how the Scalawagons are described in the book:

The two were standing in a large room. All around them stood brightly colored little motor cars.

“Yes,” said the Wizard, “these scalawagons can do more than blue mules. Just think, there’ll be a free taxi for everyone in Oz!”

“And-those-with-spiked-wheels-will-be-trac-tors-for-the-farm-ers,” said Tik-Tok.

“What’s more,” went on the Wizard, rubbing his hands with satisfaction, “when you extend their running boards to the breeze, you have excellent gliders!”

“Mar-vel-ous,” ticked the copper man.

“But that isn’t all,” the Wizard continued, opening the door of one of the scalawagons. “Look here.”

Tik-Tok bent to see what the Wizard was pointing at. “With this rubber foam on the inside, they’ll be comfortable on rough roads. They’re absolutely un- breakable. And their motors are no bigger than goose eggs.”

“Con-grat-u-la-tions!”

The Wizard’s eyes were sparkling. “Look at this center button. Just push it, and out comes LUNCH! Think of it! People will go on picnics in lunch wagons!”

“Re-mark-able!”

The little Wizard was beaming so hard that his bald head glistened. “I’ve explained how to pound sense into them. Then they’ll know enough to obey traffic rules. And they won’t need garages, for they’ll understand how to keep out of danger.”

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So, a lot of interesting things going on here. First, just to explain, Tik-Tok is a “mechanical man,” essentially a robot that the Wizard is putting in charge of the factory, which, I suppose, means the factory is sort of automated, too.

The odd way Tik-Tok speaks; that sort of stilted pronounced syllabic-break style that has sort of become shorthand for “robot talk” I think originated in Baum’s Oz novels.

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Also note that the fleet of Scalawagons is intended to be operated as a fleet of free taxis, not privately owned, which fits with the shared vehicle model that many modern autonomous vehicle makers are predicting.

The “free” part and the ownership of the cars and factory by the state also suggest that the Wizard runs Oz like a socialist country, at least to some extent.

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Now, the button that produces lunches and the ability to fly/glide is far beyond the expectations of most AV developers, but the “motors no bigger than goose eggs” really isn’t that far off the size of most modern electric car motors, which can be about, oh, ostrich egg-sized.

When the Wizard talks about “pounding sense into them” so they know to obey traffic rules, that’s essentially the programming and computation side of autonomous vehicles.

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The design of the Scalawagons is remarkably prescient. Here, compare it to Google’s autonomous vehicle prototype:

Illustration for article titled Autonomous Cars Were Predicted In A iWizard of Oz/i Book
Image: Reilly & Lee publishers/Jason Torchinsky
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I mean, Neill’s Scalawagon is pretty damn close to Google’s autonomous prototype for something that was conceived almost 75 years earlier. The generally rounded shape is very similar, same for the overall layout, the relatively un-ornamented design, the scale is similar, and, most notably, they both feature prominent “sensor domes” on their roofs.

Google’s is a LiDAR dome and the Quadling car’s is more of a mechanical head with eyes, but I think conceptually, they’re the same. Besides, even our human heads are basically sensor domes on top of our bodies.

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From Scalawagons of Oz, page 158
From Scalawagons of Oz, page 158
Image: Reilly & Lee publishers

I think it’s pretty amazing—back in 1941, writing about an imaginary land, not just the basic idea of a self-driving car was proposed (I don’t think this is even close to the first general instance of that, but still) but an overall system for their use was articulated in a way that’s relevant today, and the general design could be translated to modern (and real) technology with minimal changes.

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And, just like today, the autonomous car making company was being run by a wealthy and infamous charlatan, who didn’t want you looking at him behind curtains.

That’s impressive stuff, oh great and almighty Wizard.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!: https://rb.gy/udnqhh)

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DISCUSSION

When the Wizard talks about “pounding sense into them” so they know to obey traffic rules, that’s essentially the programming and computation side of autonomous vehicles.

I’ve been programming and sysadmining for almost 3 decades now that that’s exactly what it’s like.