Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Autonomous cars by 1976?

By Paul Leroux

When you hear "Firebird," what image comes to mind? Chances are, it looks something like this:

Or this:

But did you know that the Firebird brand dates back to the 1950s? In those days, the Firebird looked like this:

Clearly, this wasn't a production car. Rather, GM designed it to promote a variety of forward-looking technologies, including a rear-view camera, a CRT-based instrument panel, and, yes, autonomous drive.

Speaking of which, here's a video from 1956 that shows how an "electronic control strip" embedded in the road allowed the Firebird II to drive itself. Jump to the :37 mark to catch the action:

My favorite part? The closing comment, "This may well be part of the American scene in 1976." The prediction was on the optimistic side, to say the least. But it does reflect our long-standing fascination with self-driving cars. In fact, it goes beyond that. The Firebird II also embodies a persistent belief that such cars are inherently safer than cars driven by humans.

Here, for example, is an excerpt from the Firebird II brochure, which extols the benefits of putting technology in the driver's seat:

    Not only do you relax and enjoy your journey, but you are as safe as modern science can make you. For, while human beings err in judgment, the electronic brain is completely foolproof.

Does that sound familiar? It does to me. A few weeks ago, I wrote about an article published in 1958 that claimed:

    Driving will one day be foolproof, and accidents unknown, when science finally installs the Electronic Highway of the Future.

Part of me laughs at the sheer naïvety of these statements. But you know what? They aren't all that far from the truth. I'd like to think I'm better than any "electronic brain" at driving safely, but the evidence is starting to suggest otherwise. According to data gathered by the Highway Loss Data Institute, automatic crash-avoidance systems in cars are, in fact, better than humans at responding to a variety of dangerous situations.

So, in some small way, I'm threatened by these statements. After all, who wants think of themselves as Captain Dunsel? :-)

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