If automotive futurists are right, we will soon live in a world where self-driving vehicles from Tesla and other automakers transport us from one destination to another while we sit idle in the cabin. While this dream scenario seems to have begun in recent years, engineers have actually been trying to build autonomous cars since the early 20th century. Check out some fascinating – and sometimes misguided – attempts to get us out of the driver's seat.
1. The remote-controlled car that led to Houdini's arrest
New York City residents in the summer of 1925 were greeted with an unusual sight ̵
The story has a strange epilogue. Famous escape artist Harry Houdini was reportedly so upset that Houdina's advertising caused the public to confuse the two – Houdina sometimes received mail for Houdini – that the wizard and his secretary Oscar Teale were arrested for breaking into Houdina's office to retrieve correspondence destined for Houdini. The charge was later dropped.
Despite this peculiar fold, various iterations of a "phantom" automobile, which was controlled by radio, appeared for years, if not with constant success. In 1932, a phantom car by the engineer J.J. Lynch plowed into a crowd in Hanover, Pennsylvania and hit 12 people.
2. The Nebraska Test
While radio-controlled vehicles ultimately turned out to be insufficient, there was no shortage of other ways to get driverless vehicles on the road. In 1957, an experiment was conducted on US 77 near the Nebraska 2 intersection near Lincoln, Nebraska, in which a Chevrolet was guided by wire spools that were located under the sidewalk. State transportation engineer Leland Hancock developed the method and commissioned electronics manufacturer RCA to support his attempts to automate vehicles. The project was partly inspired by a 1939 world exhibition concept for a driverless future, as the industrialist Norman Bel Geddes put it. During the demonstration, an RCA representative used coils on the vehicle's bumper to communicate with the guidewire under the road. To prove that the car was guided by the coils and radio transmission, the windshield was darkened. Hancock believed that this would be a viable driverless control method, but the cost and effort of laying the guidewire proved to be an insurmountable obstacle.
3. The Titanium Firebird
General Motors' Firebird II, the first car made entirely of titanium, caused a sensation in 1956 when the automaker suggested that it be controlled via an electronic strip under the road. A retractable steering wheel would disappear, handing the car over to some sort of autopilot system that would be monitored by traffic control towers similar to those in the aviation industry. GM correctly predicted voice activated features and screens. The speculative efforts made a demonstration in Princeton, New Jersey in 1960 and never went far beyond that, although you can see the excellent promotional video above.
4. The plane arrives (type of)
1961 introduced popular science William Bertelsen, a doctor who worked on technology and developed a hovercraft. His aeromobile glided in "airways" rather than highways and raced at hundreds of miles an hour as the drivers leaned back and read the newspapers. Bertelsen actually built an aeromobile called Aeromobile 35B that used airflow downward rather than inward to propel itself, which allowed for better steering. However, his high-speed utopia of the aircraft never materialized. Engineers in the UK were way ahead of the US in the field of hovercraft, which minimized American interest in the vehicles.
5. The ghost car
When trying to test tire reliability in 1968, the German carmaker Continental came up with a method for driverless vehicle operation. The demonstration, which took place on the Contidrom test track in the Lüneburg Heath and was developed by Siemens, Westinghouse, and researchers from the universities of Munich and Darmstadt, used a guide wire on the street. When the car drove away, sensors alerted the system and steered the car back into place. A control station could instruct the vehicle to brake and accelerate.
The “electric car” was used regularly on the track, which impressed the observers by not driving anyone behind the wheel. Glass panes along the route showed the engineers how different tire profiles reacted to different conditions. The strategy was used until 1974.
6. The ambulance of the future
In 1989, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University drove around the campus with ALVINN or Autonomous Land Vehicle In a Neural Network. The computer-controlled vehicle, a former army ambulance, had a CPU the size of a refrigerator and used a 5000 watt generator for the power supply. In essence, the car could drive with the information stored in its network instead of relying on a predetermined network in the area. The former army ambulance is considered the predecessor of the self-driving vehicle networks used today. In 1995 the group drove 3100 miles across the country in a Pontiac Trans Sport in 1990 and steered autonomously while a man operated the brakes and the hand throttle.
7. The car with the eyes
In 1994, the German engineer Ernst Dickmanns realized his dream of a self-driving car when he was able to use two Mercedes 500 SEL limousines on a public road without a human driver in Paris, France. The cars had an on-board computer system that controlled the wheels, gasoline, and brakes. Dickmann's work dates back to 1986 when he equipped a Mercedes van with a computer and cameras to get information such as lane markings off the road. The work culminated in a test drive in real traffic, where the drivers could take the wheel if necessary. Although Dickmann's work anticipated much of the surveillance elements of today's modern self-driving cars, his supporters wanted more immediate results and eventually withdrew funding.