Autonomy and the 1939 World's Fair

Abraham Drimmer
by Abraham Drimmer
autonomy and the 1939 worlds fair

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.

Join the conversation
3 of 28 comments
  • 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.

  • Keith Maybe my market's different. but 4.5k whack. Plus mods like his are just donations for the next owner. I'd consider driving it as a fun but practical yet disposable work/airport car if it was priced right. Some VAG's (yep, even Audis) are capable, long lasting reliable cars despite what the haters preach. I can't lie I've done the same as this guy: I had a decently clean 4 Runner V8 with about the same miles- I put it up for sale around the same price as the lower mile examples. I heard crickets chirp until I dropped the price. Folks just don't want NYC cab miles.
  • Max So GM will be making TESLAS in the future. YEA They really shouldn’t be taking cues from Elon musk. Tesla is just about to be over.
  • Malcolm It's not that commenters attack Tesla, musk has brought it on the company. The delivery of the first semi was half loaded in 70 degree weather hauling potato chips for frito lay. No company underutilizes their loads like this. Musk shouted at the world "look at us". Freightliners e-cascads has been delivering loads for 6-8 months before Tesla delivered one semi. What commenters are asking "What's the actual usable range when in say Leadville when its blowing snow and -20F outside with a full trailer?
  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.