By on May 1, 2014


1939 GM Futurama-07-1

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.


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28 Comments on “Autonomy and the 1939 World’s Fair...”

  • avatar

    TTAC, please keep this guy.

    Lucid writing and a grasp of history, especially the appreciation that our understanding of history is most hampered by already knowing and daily living with how things turned out.

    I agree that one unbroken conceptual thread links the introduction of highways as a sort of railroad for cars to the current impetus for autonomous vehicles.

  • avatar

    Very well written.

    Car junkies who recoil in horror at the thought of the autonomous car should keep in mind need to think the concept through. During those inevitable times of mindless, unenjoyable, driving (the daily commute, long trips on the interstate, etc.), the idea of a car that drives itself while I sit curled up in a good book is a really neat idea.

    Because we’ll always have the back country roads on which to get creative in our driving. I cannot see (in the near or middle future, at least) how a self-driving system is going to work other than on a multi-lane, limited-access highway.

    • 0 avatar
      Abrham Drimmer

      Thanks, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Fetishistic as it may seem I really like how some of the auto press as been pushing the distinction between motoring and driving lately, two things I do not think are mutually exclusive.

      That said, I might remind everyone that I daily drive a very communicative car:

    • 0 avatar

      It seems pretty clear the opposite is the case. Auto automation is only starting to occur now that it’s possible to execute it entirely within the vehicle. In that context, it doesn’t matter which road the car is on. It reads the road and drives the car based on real-time autonomous inputs, just like a human driver. Google’s cars don’t talk to the road, nor do they need to.

      Which doesn’t say that there’s no place for building interactivity into the roadways. But it would be supplemental, not central.

      Sadly, I’ll never be able to read a book in a moving car, regardless of who’s driving. And that fact influences what my preferences will be regarding autonomous operation. I don’t like riding in ANY vehicle where I’m not the operator.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    While I didn’t know that the idea for autonomous cars went back this far, I am one of those who recoils in horror.

    Here’s why: For me driving is an experience not to be missed. The destination is important, but I enjoy the interesting roads and the monotonous ones as well. This is why I hate the idea of in-car entertainment systems to keep the kids quiet. I want them to look outside and enjoy the grandeur of the countryside. After having driven cross-country with our 5 kids (camping), I can’t imagine them waking up in San Diego having missed everything in between there and western PA.

    But thanks for a well-written, informative article!

    • 0 avatar
      Abrham Drimmer

      don’t get me wrong, I’m on your side:

      But people want what they want and if the studies I’ve been reading very closely lately are to be believed, the people want autonomous cars.

      • 0 avatar

        I think people want the choice of autonomous operation when convenient, and manual operation when desirable. I doubt that such a choice will be feasible, tho. Once autonomous operation becomes possible, insurance costs will force most people to hand over control unless they can afford big jumps in premiums and deductables for the privelege.

        • 0 avatar
          Abrham Drimmer

          I’m not convinced thats how its going to go, at least not in the immediate future. The funny thing about it is that the only differences between fully autonomous individual transportation and mass transit is the on-demand quality (a feature that almost defines the modern day) and the ability to not have to look anyone in the eye (another popular element of contemporary society).

  • avatar

    Interesting that so much of what was in this video actually came to be.

    Thanks for posting!

  • avatar

    “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.”

    I find this to be one of the few reasons to remain optimistic about the immediate future – and they’re aren’t many.

    A centrally-controlled network of radio-controlled cars fills me with horror when I think about the sort of power that gives whoever is running the network.

    I think Lutz is right, and if you look at the world, it’s absolutely true that people consider the autonomous car, sitting in traffic, preferable to riding the bus or train.

  • avatar

    God, I love Art Deco. Makes me want to go out and find a Dymaxion to drive.

    • 0 avatar
      Abrham Drimmer

      I grew up in New York City and my mother was a collector of Art Deco bric-a-brac. After New York I lived in Miami, another city with a huge bend towards art deco. It is very much a mode of seeing/understanding architecture and industry that has influenced my world view.

      Also Buckminster Fuller is my Enzo Ferrari.

  • avatar

    Nice article.
    To be honest though, I give less thought about auto-cars than I do the massive push to turn everything with lane markers into toll roads. For the future auto-cars :)

  • avatar

    The film is another great Jam Handy Organization production.

    • 0 avatar
      Abraham Drimmer

      Funny you should mention that. I’m working on a piece about Jam Handy’s studio here in Detroit. Did you know that it has been repurposed into an art space that hosts cultural events open to the public?

      • 0 avatar

        Which Handy facility, the one on Grand Blvd east of Woodward? I think they also had a building on James Couzens near Schafer and then they moved to Southfield into that big building on 8 Mile just west of the Lodge.

        • 0 avatar
          Abraham Drimmer

          the grand boulevard facility. not sure if you are local, or what your tastes in art are (most of the events hosted there are what some might call “fringe”, which is what I happen to like) but you should check it out sometime, I’ve become quite close with the new owner and the building has history everywhere. its a magnificent place.

  • avatar

    The CCC built roads on government lands such as Skyline Drive Va. and south.
    Other Depression era state and local roads were funded by gasoline taxes. The problem wasn’t a recognition of a need for improved roads. Former narrow and winding dirt or gravel roads asphalted to some extent plus a few concrete roads. Cars driven 60 – 70 mph if possible.
    Add in tractor trailers with anemic power, heavy loads and many RR grade crossings. Poor car safety design and who would have thought of seat belts? Gasoline taxes routinely siphoned to support subsistence welfare. WPA road work was shovel ready meaning labor was given priority over machines. Automation was only a vision. Expectations mid 30’s was for TV 1942 in some form.

  • avatar

    Ultimatly, what I think we’ll have is autonomous personal assistants rather than dedicated autonomous cars. Rather than a car that drives you to the food store to shop, you can give a menu to the assistant and it would drive to the store, buy the ingredients, then come home and cook the meal.

    I don’t see the massive investment in technology you’d need for an actual autonomous car staying in the vehicle. It needs to get out of the vehicle to get a better return on investment. DARPA is pushing us in this direction. One of their recent challenges involves a scenario of the robot climbing into a vehicle and driving it. Then getting out and performing tasks. It makes so much more sense.

    • 0 avatar
      Abraham Drimmer

      Hmmm interesting vision but I can say with some authority this isn’t a realistic prediction of emergent technologies.

      • 0 avatar

        Abraham, mcs is quite shy.

        Perhaps he can again quickly elaborate on his day job. Then you might give more weight to what he says, because it’s connected to autonomous transportation.

        • 0 avatar
          Abraham Drimmer

          i’d love to hear more, being proven wrong is a hobby of mine. that said i’m well aware of DARPA’s recent (farmed out) exploits in autonomous “assistants” and while I have a degree of faith in the hard science I think it vastly over rates its relevance in the age of runaway income inequality.

  • avatar


    btw, who saw this coming – climate change demands war on cars:

    • 0 avatar

      Aw, David Suzuki never looks at the Big Picture. CO2 raises temperatures, but it also makes thing grow. We’ll be able to drive with our corn-derived methanol fuel and eat our popcorn too!

  • avatar

    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.

    • 0 avatar

      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!

  • avatar

    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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