The age-old dream of the driverless car.

  • 8. July 2015
  • Autonomous Driving
  • Text: Wolfang Pauser

Self-driving cars have existed both in people’s minds and on paper for a long time. The visions and utopias from the past tell the history of our automotive future.

What shall we do if the car’s driving itself? Turn the seats round and play cards on a little table in the middle! The F 015 research car was not the first to take this approach, which also appears in a drawing from the middle of the last century. As bewilderingly new as the idea of autonomous driving seems, it’s a dream that has been around for a long time. It was a lack of practical feasibility that had prevented the vision of a robot car being turned into reality. Drawings on paper were the only medium that was patient enough for the fantastical transport concepts that flew in the face of reason. But how was this flying car supposed to work from a technological perspective? The separation of the lanes and prominent centre line suggest that these are what keep the car on course.

This vehicle brings to mind the little cars you see on theme park rides, sometimes by themselves, sometimes linked together. It’s a hybrid between a car and a train, a mini railway without rails that looks like a car. This is similar to the F 015, a car that drives as if it’s on rails but doesn’t need them to do so. (Image 2)


A technologically simple idea but one that is complicated to implement: the cable car principle that works so well up in the Alps is brought down to ground level. San Francisco’s cable cars, which are hauled up the hills by cables running under the road, demonstrated the feasibility of underground towing systems but luckily nobody tried using them to achieve the dream of driverless cars.

This transport version of pneumatic mail features a transparent tube so people can see where they’re going. It propels people along in specially designed capsules instead of cars. This gives the impression of travelling independently as if they were in their own car, although the tubes are more like a railway line than a road. (Image 4)


The concept of a city without cars and trains becomes plausible, if the pavement begins to transport people and objects. Speed seems not to be of the essence, but rather a comfortable strolling through urban streets. While the benches remind us of beach chairs, they are driven by miniature wheels allowing the cabins to move.

Not every visionary picture explains the technology that it depicts. Here, the man with his pipe and newspaper demonstrates the pleasure of travelling in a car that does have a steering wheel but you don’t need to keep turning it. The cartoon is literally ‘up in the air’ about whether this self-driving vehicle is a car or a flying capsule. In any case, it’s part of a multi-optional transport system integrating cars, buses and trains. (Image 6)


Neither road nor rail, but a combination of the two: this half-pipe-like channel forces the car to stay on course, even without a driver. Similar to how a water slide works, the grooves in the channel guide the car to its destination. An air cushion keeps it off the ground, but magnetic repulsion would also be conceivable. Why it has a steering wheel and whether this can be used to steer the car out of the empty riverbed will remain a mystery.

This cheerful scene from the 1950s is completely different again, looking to the future confident that the technological solution to the self-driving car will soon be found without any effort having to be made right now. (Image 8)


How can you drive a car without steering it, if there are not yet any computers? Tunnels are a very straightforward solution, but building them is expensive and time-consuming. A ‘stream of air’ lifts up this family car and keeps it on course. Dad’s posture indicates that he doesn’t need to steer. But the artist left it for the future to decide whether the steering wheel would be needed again at the end of the tunnel and how the car would continue to stay up and move forward.


If the car can’t steer itself and you don’t want to take the wheel, then just hop into a capsule that whizzes along tubes crossing the town and the countryside. This idea for individual and mass transport was adapted from the technology used for pneumatic mail – a system in which air pressure propels capsules through narrow tubes.

The first computers were too far removed from artificial intelligence for anyone to imagine them replacing the driver. Nonetheless, the idea of a robot as chauffeur can be seen as a precursor to autonomous driving. A harbinger of the demographic changes to come, the robot acts as a driver for old ladies and gives them someone to talk to. (Image 11)


Men and women still have their traditional roles here but the wheeled cars have already formed a kind of traffic jam, turning a negative into a positive. If the cars are travelling bumper to bumper on overcrowded roads anyway, then a relatively simple system based on a herd of sheep could coordinate their movements. The similarity between a traffic jam and a train journey has inspired the artist to create a half-ironic, half-visionary picture of the pleasures of autonomous driving.


At the New York World’s Fair in 1939, the Futurama exhibition presented the innovative ideas for the next 20 years. This daring look into the future was created by the American Norman Bel Geddes, whose futuristic concepts were indicative of his career as an industrial designer. Geddes attached great importance to the vision of driverless vehicles, believing they would dominate the roads in future. Futurama was supported by the General Motors Corporation.


This car, with its circular bench seat, appears to be steered by a ghost as it travels without any passengers along an otherwise empty road. Either there are invisible aliens in the car, or this is an early form of self-driving car whose owner has sent it to the airport to collect a couple of extra-terrestrials from their flying saucers.


The most famous vision of a computer-controlled car is KITT, the intelligent hero who appeared alongside David Hasselhoff in the TV series Knight Rider (1982). His artificial intelligence appeared very human-like and was similar to that of the supercomputer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – not just in terms of behaviour but also design. KITT’s strip of red flashing lights at the front represented the car’s alert state in the same way as HAL’s round red light when ‘it’ gently informed commander Dave that he no longer had control of his spaceship.

Image Sources:


Image 1: Miller, H.

Image 2: Unknown

Image 3: Elder, Will

Image 4: Unknown

Image 5: Tinsley, Frank

Image 6: Unknown

Image 7: Bonnier Corporation

Image 8: Unknown

Image 9: Bonnier Corporation

Image 10: Hearst Corporation

Image 11: Carlson, Jonathan

Image 12: Unknown

Image 13: General Motors Company

Image 14: Balogh, Charles

Image 15: NBC Universal


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