The 1950s: the era of American optimism! A decade of scientific advancement! All predicated on the idea that the future is something to look forward to, and that we can make a better world for our children!
Today, we know those concepts to be lies, but as we talk about autonomous cars more and more, it’s worth revisiting an idea General Motors had for that way back in the shiny postwar years.
In 1956, GM featured this film at their Motorama festival to showcase what could be in store with driverless cars by the far-flung futureyear of 1976. Viewed through today’s lens, some of their ideas are patently ridiculous — but in other ways they’re much better than how 1976 actually turned out, what with malaise, gas crises, bad mustaches, soft rock music and the election of Jimmy Carter, just to name a few things that sucked about that year.
I saw it today for the first time over at Popular Mechanics and I had to share it here.
Here’s how GM imagined autonomous driving would work 20 years from the 1950s: a family of four is cruising along the highway of tomorrow in their gas turbine-powered Firebird II. They stay in constant communication via radio with a gentleman in a tower, who serves as their personal ground traffic controller, mapping the best route for them to use.
It’s not unlike OnStar, actually, except I don’t think they wear those quasi-militaristic uniforms to work. (Or do they?)
Also, the family sings to him, and he sings back. He’s actually got a lovely voice. I’m not sure if they do that as a gag to one another or if singing is a requirement in this vision of the future, which would actually make it some kind of nightmarish dystopia, the more I think about it. Hmm.
When Dad wants to put the car into “Autopilot Mode,” he carefully adjusts the Firebird’s speed and position on the road via a set of electronic controls that looks simple and overly complex at the same time, like a game of Pong you need a Ph.D to operate. Autonomous driving in this vision of the future takes almost as much human input as normal driving.
Now this film was conceptualized in the 1950s, which means Dad here is only about 11 years removed from a day job that probably involved blowing Messerschmitts out of the sky, so he’s old hat at this kind of thing. But can you see your average driver wanting to mess with a control system that complicated? While driving, to boot? Did GM think what could happen if the driver took his eyes off the wheel that long?
Who cares, it’s the future! Once the family gets the Firebird II into Autopilot, they can cruise into the high-speed autonomous lane, all while they enjoy the many conveniences technology will bring us one day — like in-car ice cream and an air conditioning unit that lets you smoke a cigar without suffocating your passengers.
The family’s Firebird II is just one of many, many autonomous cars in the future, all racing happily and safely along a network of carefully-controlled vehicles designed to eliminate accidents and human error.
The backdrop kind of makes it look like Houston, or maybe New York in the aftermath of one of the Third Nuclear War. (What, you didn’t think this future came without some sacrifices? Do you even know what kinds of atrocities that guy had to commit to get up into his tower?!?)
A couple things: One, this vision of autonomous driving is distinctly American and distinctly 1950s, centered around being able to explore the country in our then-burgeoning, now crumbling highway system.
Two, if you replace the singing Mr. Tower Man with software-controlled connected cars, the basic idea is still there. GM’s film was also accurate in the sense that if cars go autonomous, they will still have human operation and probably won’t go fully “driverless” for decades, if ever.
The turbine-powered car may not have worked out, but the autonomous cars are coming. If that keeps us from having to sing to people in towers, maybe we’re better off.
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