The future appears to be now for self-driving cars, as more and more auto manufacturers are currently testing their versions out on the highways. But whether you realize it or not, self-driving systems have been in the works for more than 60 years.
General Motors felt really good about autonomous cars back in 1956. In fact, GM was so optimistic about the vehicles that they produced a 9-minute film in support of them in that year. The car featured in the film was the GM Firebird II, a concept car that was never expected to reach the assembly lines.
According to Tech Insider, the video shows a family riding in the Firebird II. The family wants to switch the Firebird over to self-driving mode, so they have to radio a control tower for access. They are given two choices of routes to take by a man in a roadside office.
They are instructed to move to an “electronic control strip” in the center lane and synchronize the car’s speed and direction. According to The Washington Post, the driver adjusts some knobs on the dashboard and turns the Firebird II over to an autopilot system.
A man in the control tower responds, “Well done Firebird II, you’re now under automatic control. Hands off steering.” The autopilot transformation was completed in a little more than two minutes.
Popular Mechanics called the operation a takeoff on how personal assistants would have been used in the 1950s. Ham radio language was used in the video, and it ends with the family and the man in the control tower joining together for a song.
But as we mentioned, concept cars were around before 1956. An exhibition from 2 years ago in Atlanta, Georgia featured a display of 19 concept cars that never hit mass-market production.
The U.S. Stout Motor Car Company manufactured fewer than ten Stout Scarabs in 1936. According to Daily Mail Online, Stout described its automobile as “a virtual living room on wheels” that could seat seven.
And the three-wheeled Electric Egg came along in 1942. French designer Paul Arzens used his creation to navigate the streets of Paris during World War II. After the war, GM came up with the Firebird XP-21 in 1953. The XP-21 ran on a gas turbine but was too costly for mass production.
Viewzone tells us about two other concept cars that never made it- one being the 1956 Oldsmobile Golden Rocket. This model was a gold colored 2-passenger car that looked like a rocket. The concept was clearly influenced by the space race of that era.
The Golden Rocket ran on a V8 engine with 275 horsepower. It had blue and gold leather upholstery, and a tilt steering wheel operated by a button. An aircraft cockpit influenced the design of its console and controls.
A showcase concept at the 1956 Chicago Auto Show was the Packard Predictor. According to Jalopnik, it ran on a Packard V-8 with 300 horsepower and featured servo motors that shorted out a lot. The Packard Predictor also had reversible seat cushions, sliding roof panels, and a push-button transmission.
Elsewhere, a 1956 article reprinted on envisioningtheamericandream.com made predictions about other advances in family home life by 1975. The story called for ultrasonic rays to be doing the cleaning in dishwashers and clothes washers. Television sets will be extremely thin, and hung on walls like pictures. And parties involved in telephone calls will see each other’s images on screens at both ends.
As far as automobiles, they were expected to be as common as home swimming pools in 1975. And those cars would contain automated parking brains. We await 2020. Or 2030.