“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Computer scientist Alan Kay’s famous quote is a great one because it acknowledges just how difficult it is to envision the future. Of course that challenge stops few people from trying. And viewing the results with 20-20 hindsight can be hilarious.
GM produced this video of the Firebird II, a concept car, for its 1956 Motorama autoshow. The car included a garish fin that looked like it belonged on a cruise missile. Its body was made of titanium, which would be incredibly expensive.
But the part that looks silliest in 2015 is the self-driving capabilities. The video starts with the family of four lamenting being stuck in traffic.
They imagine what things could look like in the far away year of 1976. This is when things get weird. Suddenly they’re cruising on an empty highway. All the traffic has disappeared! They want to switch into self-driving mode, which requires radioing a control tower for approval.
A guy in a roadside building that vaguely resembles something from the Jetsons offers two different routes.
The family picks their path and then the man in the tower instructs them to move to an “electronic control strip” in the center lane. The driver is then told to synchronize his speed and direction, which leads to some nonsensical fiddling with dashboard nobs.
“Well done Firebird II, you’re now under automatic control. Hands off steering,” says the man in the tower.
The whole exchange takes just over two minutes. Imagine if every time someone wanted to use a self-driving car they had to sit through a two-minute phone call. The amount of manpower to make such a system possible would be extremely expensive.
But this isn’t to say there won’t be an human element in self-driving cars. Google has a patent for a system in which a stuck self-driving car contacts an assistance center, where an operator helps resolve the situation. (For example, navigating around cows that have stumbled onto a road.) But that happens only after exhausting all other options. If there’s one thing we can safely predict, it’s that automation will play a starring role in any new technology.