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Back to the Future

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Hello again, dear readers! While I’ve been spending time with loved ones this holiday season and thinking of the perfect gifts for friends and family, a gift dropped itself into my lap when I was trying to come up with an idea for a blog leading up to Christmas. This past weekend, a student of mine turned in a paper about the history of self-driving cars, and as it turns out, Norman Bel Geddes unveiled the first true autonomous vehicle in December 1939 at the World’s Fair in New York.

Attempts to take human drivers out of the equation had been made since automobiles were first invented. In the 1920s, Houdina Radio Control came up with a car that could be remotely driven by an operator following along in a second car. Dubbed the American Wonder, the 1926 Chandler was not entirely driverless as it did rely on the remote pilot following behind, and the idea went through several iterations before being resigned to the history books.

It wasn’t until 1939 that Bel Geddes would perfect a way to make vehicles truly driverless at his Futurama exhibit in Brooklyn at the World’s Fair. Similar to the concept of a mag-lev train, his cars ran on electromagnets running under the road at regular intervals. The only interaction from humans was the startup and shutdown of the sequence, along with any track switches, not unlike a traditional railroad. While some may argue that this still did not equate to being 100% autonomous, it was the first iteration of the idea that did not require any human driver anywhere in traffic.

Unfortunately, Bel Geddes invention was too cost-prohibitive to be mass-produced, but he predicted that such vehicles could be widely available as soon as 1960, though it would be difficult to convince those who were invested in the booming oil industry to change directions.

So this holiday season, as we’re about to pull into an entirely new decade of ingenuity and promise, I gift you all, dear readers, with this glimpse into what those in the past thought our future would look like.

-Trey Fennell



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