How we arrived at today's self-driving cars -- and where the road leads

Google may be synonymous with driverless cars these days, but the concept can trace its history back long before the Internet search giant even existed.

An exhibit at Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum—located not that far from Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, in fact—looks at both the history and current state of self-driving cars, featuring some pretty interesting blasts from the past, as we’ll see in this video report.

Take the 1939 World’s Fair, where General Motors presented its Futurama exhibit to project what the world would look like in 1960. In a time before computers, GM envisioned a system in which cars were operated by radio from a central control tower.

gm self driving cars

Archival footage of GM’s plans for driverless cars can be seen at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

“General Motors actually tried to do this in the ’50s in combination with RCA radio and it worked,” says Marc Weber, founding curator of the Internet History Program at the Computer History Museum. “It’s still used in test tracks today. The stumbling block is you would need to retrofit all the freeways. There was actually a big effort to do that, a lot of funding went into it, a lot of studies but it never hit critical mass.”

These days, with the likes of Google, Toyota, and Nissan all working hard at the technology, it’s quite possible that a self-driving car revolution will come about in our own lifetime. But a lot of development remains to be done.

google self driving cars

Google’s fleet of self-driving cars figures prominently in the new exhibit at the Computer History Museum.

“Once you get even the speeds you have on a secondary road, you’re way past the speeds that you can stop before every obstacle,” Weber said. “So you need to be able to predict ahead of the car to see the pedestrian crossing and make some intelligent guess about which way they’re going to go. It seems simple, but it raises an order of magnitude the degree of intelligence you need in a car.”

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