May 16, 2013
Visions of driverless cars zipping around on the highways of the future are nothing new. Visions of automated highways date back to at least the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and the push-button driverless car was a common dream depicted in such midcentury utopian artifacts as 1958′s Disneyland TV episode “Magic Highway, U.S.A.” But here in the 21st century there’s a growing sense that the driverless car might actually (fingers crossed, hope to die) be closer than we think. And thanks to the progress being made by companies like Google (not to mention just about every major car company), some even believe that driverless vehicles could become a mainstream reality within just five years.
Despite all the well-known sci-fi predictions of the 20th century (not to mention those of the 21st, like in the movies Minority Report and iRobot) many people forget the very earnest and expensive investment in this vision of the future from recent history. That investment was the multi-million dollar push by the U.S. Congress to build an automated highway system in the 1990s.
In 1991 Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which authorized $650 million to be spent over the course of the next six years on developing the technology that would be needed for driverless cars running on an automated highway. The vision was admittedly bold, seeing as how primitive all of the components needed for such a system were at that time. Even consumer GPS technology — which today we take for granted in our phones and vehicles — wasn’t a reality in the early 1990s.
The real-world benefits of automated highways were thought to be improving safety by removing human error from the equation, as well as improved travel times and better fuel economy.
The National Automated Highway System Consortium was formed in late 1994 and were comprised of nine core organizations, both public and private: General Motors, Bechtel Corporation, The California Department of Transportation, Carnegie Mellon University, Delco Electronics, Hughes Electronics, Lockheed Martin, Parsons Brinckerhoff, and the University of California-Berkeley.
The goal was eventually to allow for fully automated operation of an automobile — what a Congressional report described as “hands-off, feet-off” driving.
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