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The Self-Driving Car that Never Was

A futuristic history of automated transport

It was a period of huge outlandish cars – De Sotos, Oldmobiles and Studebakers – with long fins, bright colours and gigantic gas-guzzling engines that brought managers and professionals from the suburbs to downtown offices across America.

Indeed, forty million automobiles were already on America’s roads by the beginning of the 1950s, a figure that climbed to 60 million just a decade later.

However, while American kids ate apple pie, drank malt shakes and watched The Jetsons, a number of engineers, university departments and major companies, were independently working on Personal Rapid Transport (PRT) systems that, had they been implemented, could have altered the landscape of modernity and greatly reduced pollution.

William Alden, a Harvard Business School graduate with a background in industrial engineering, had developed an automated mail sorting mechanism. His intuition was that the same basic model could be used to transfer commuters: an idea that was reinvented, remixed and remodelled in a wide range of ways until the late seventies.

The typical PRT system was based on a network of 2-4 passenger transport pods that were conveyed along pre-established pathways. All commuters had to do, was insert the punch card that would direct them to their final destination. The electric pods would automatically exchange nodes at the necessary stations and silently ferret them to their office. It was a vastly disruptive intuition that could have single-handedly changed the entire future of the automobile industry.

Moreover, unlike public transport, the PRT system provided a virtually private journey, but with all the perks and advantages of public transport. Passengers could read their papers or enjoy the news on TV without having to follow a timetable or stop at every station. And the electric system ensured that there were no costs for drivers or pollution created by fossil fuels.

Alden even took his system one step further: how was one supposed to get to and from the PRT stations? His idea was to develop a pod that could roll right off of (or onto) the pathways and be driven by passengers to their homes. It was the birth of the concept of “dual mode” transport.

A similar “dual mode” transit system was envisaged by a class of MIT students in 1962. Their “commucar” concept resembled a traditional automobile, but it was equipped with a mechanical system that could attach it to an automated network. Alas, the professors labelled the project as an exercise in mechanical engineering and pointed out that they could only defend its educational aspects. Alden, meanwhile, was promoting his PRT system across the United States and at New York’s World Fair.

By early 1972, Boeing had successfully manufactured and run a transportation pod system at its own facility. Notwithstanding delays, labour disputes and a hurricane, President Nixon was expected at the inauguration. His daughter, who was sent to represent the President, described the experience as “better than Disneyland,” notwithstanding a malfunction that occurred during the event. Just weeks earlier, a similar system had failed in San Francisco. Yet another system, the German “cabinentaxi system” underwent years of testing only to be completely cancelled by the late seventies.

“Dual mode has always been something that sounds exciting,” explains Catherine Burke, Associate Professor at USC and author of Innovation and Public Policy: The Case of Personal Rapid Transit. However, the system presented a long list of problems and issues, such as letting vehicles off the track in the hands of people who might not know how to run them. Then, there were problems related to vehicle malfunction, delays due to safety checks, and road traffic that could block the pods at highway junctions. Indeed, what would happen if a passenger were napping when the pod rolled off the tracks?

On top of this, the appeal of owning a car was an idea that Americans were not ready to give up. “There was an ideology against public transportation systems,” explains Marco PavoneDirector at Stanford’s Autonomous Systems Lab, which focuses on robotics and self-driving cars. These cars “were missing sensors and on-board processing capability,” Pavone adds. “The computers were not fast enough to process the vast amount of information that is needed in order to have autonomous driving.”

And that, in a nutshell, is how the first self-driving car concept was abandoned.

Today, most experts agree that self-driving cars are literally around the corner. The innovation that never was, will very soon be, as we continue to dream about the Jetsons’ flying cars, zooming about futuristic urban spires.

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