Autonomy and the 1939 World's Fair

Abraham Drimmer
by Abraham Drimmer

It’s safe to assume that when the doors to the New York World’s Fair flew open 75 years ago to the day, the American public had few expectations about the future of autonomous personal transport. To be fair, they weren’t exactly sold on the whole highway thing yet either. Sure, several New Deal agencies like the WPA and CCC had successfully modernized countless local roads and a handful of major throughways, but the ubiquitous twists of freeway that would come to define the modern North American landscape were two decades and a word war away.

That said, autonomy and highways go hand in hand.

As banal as it seems to us, the concept of free-flowing traffic was a major shift, not only to the transportation paradigm, but also to the subjective perception of time and distance. Prior to the 1939 World’s Fair the concept of an interstate system was not new, but one couldn’t expect the American public to be up to date on the latest developments in theoretical civil design.

Industrial designer Bel Geddes and General Motors changed all that with their revolutionary Futurama exhibit. Futurama was a ride, a journey of scale that started with a macroscopic view of the landscape of tomorrow and gently resolved to life size. The ride ended with a display of GM’s latest offerings, naturally —but along the way viewers were privy to a startlingly accurate “prediction” of what was to come for the American road system. The one element that didn’t immediately come to fruition in the decade following the war was the “automated highway”. It isn’t clear how Geddes or GM envisioned the system working but it’s crucial to our understanding of the nascent autonomous car industry that the concept of a freeway and a car that drives itself were born hand in hand.

During an interview with our friends at Hooniverse former GM honcho Bob Lutz made it quite clear that he believes the future of individual transport to be autonomous cars. While legions of boy racers and nostalgists cry out in horror it’s important to keep a cool head and remember that we’ve always been there. Highways have been autonomous since day one, not because they control our car, but because they eliminate the landscape and along with it the need to make decisions based on our immediate surroundings. A car that controls lane departure, cruising speed, and distance between other cars isn’t autonomy, it’s just details.

Abraham Drimmer
Abraham Drimmer

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  • Sector 5 Sector 5 on May 01, 2014

    39 Autonomy brought about America's dependence on foreign oil and was probably about where the home computer is now with relation to the Internet. Domestic precious metals please. Let's recycle those catalytic converters.

    • Old Man Pants Old Man Pants on May 02, 2014

      Dude, you're not the only one who thought being a wet-cell battery for the Matrix would be a pretty good life. Wouldn't need any personal mobility for that!

  • Conslaw Conslaw on May 02, 2014

    I wondered about upcoming worlds fairs, so I checked on Wikipedia. Expo 2015 will be held in Milan, Italy. Expo 2017 will be held in Astana, Kazakhstan.

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  • Rust-MyEnemy Whoa, what the hell is wrong with Jalop1991 and his condescension? It's as if he's employed by Big Plug-In or something."I've seen plenty of your types on the forums....."Dunno what that means, but I'm not dead keen on being regarded as "A type" by a complete stranger"" I'm guessing you've never actually calculated by hand the miles you've driven against the quantity of gas used--which is your actual miles per gallon."Guess again. Why the hell would you even say that? Yes, I worked it out. Fill-to-fill, based on gas station receipts. And it showed me that a Vauxhall Astra PHEV, starting out with a fully charged PHEV battery, in Hybrid mode, on my long (234-mile) daily motorway daily commute, never, over several months, ever matched or beat the economy of the regular hybrid Honda Civic that I ran for a similar amount of time (circa 5000 miles)."You don't use gasoline at all for 30-40 miles as you use exclusively battery power, then your vehicle is a pure hybrid. Over 234 miles, you will have used whatever gas the engine used for 200 of those miles."At least you're right on that. In hybrid mode, though, the Astra was using battery power when it wasn't at all appropriate. The petrol engine very rarely chimed in when battery power was on tap, and as a result, the EV-mode range quickly disappeared. The regular hybrid Civic, though, deployed its very small electric reserves (which are used up quickly but restore themselves promptly), much more wisely. Such as when on a trailing throttle or on a downward grade, or when in stop-start traffic. As a result, at the end of my 234 miles, the Civic had used less gas than the Astra. Moreover, I hadn't had to pay for the electricity in its battery.I look forward to you arguing that what actually happened isn't what actually happened, but I was there and you were not."Regardless, that you don't understand it appears not to have stopped you from pontificating on it. Please, do us all a favor--don't vote."You really are quite unpleasant, aren't you. But thanks for the advice.
  • Tassos Jong-iL Electric vehicles are mandated by 2020 in One Korea. We are ahead of the time.
  • 1995_SC Can you still get some of the tax credits under the new program?
  • Analoggrotto HyundaiGenesisKia saw this coming a long time ago and are poised for hybrid and plug-in hybrid segment leadership:[list=1][*] The most extensive range of hybrids[/*][*]Highest hybrid sales proportion over any other model [/*][*]Best YouTube reviews [/*][*]Highest number of consumer reports best picks [/*][*]Class leading ATPs among all hybrid vehicles and PHEVs enjoy segment bearing eATPs[/*][/list=1]While some brands like Toyota have invested and wasted untold fortunes into full range electric lineups HyundaiKiaGenesis has taken the right approach here.