Over the years, General Motors, MIT and Google have all worked on self-driving cars

Beginning in the early 1960s, academics in Cambridge began a major effort to invent new transportation systems. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) set up a special research operation called “Project Transport” to concentrate on these new ideas. Novel at the time was the atempt to break down departmental barriers and get engineers, planners and political scientists all working together.

The MIT researchers were designing high speed trains to New York and Washington .... personalized rapid transit using small capsules rather than large trains ... and finally self-driving cars on specially designed roadways. The last stages of the program concentrated on taking production automobiles and modifying them so that they could also travel at high speeds using these new automated highways.

Nothing is new under the sun, and the MIT professors were actually “reinventing” an earlier idea. The origin of the “automated car” came out of the work of General Motors in the 1930s. GM research departments started looking at the highway safety problem and concluded that unsafe drivers were the main problem. The company retained a brilliant industrial designer named Norman Bel Geddes (he was the father of actress Barbara Bel Geddes of “Dallas” fame). His job was to design and build a scale model of this transportation system, showing how it would fit into the City of Tomorrow.

Bel Geddes became the designer of the famous Futurama exhibit for the 1939 New York World's Fair. Visitors saw a panoramic model of what lay ahead twenty years into the future. He wrote up the story in his 1940 book “Magic Motorways.” (You can Google “Magic Motorways” for an e-book)

Bel Geddes began his career in the 1920s as a designer of stage sets for Broadway theaters. He had a zest for inventing visual imagery, and his rendering of the modern city was one of the most memorable experiences of the World's Fair.

General Motors never gave up on the idea. In the late 1950s they modified production cars to run under automatic control down a highway. The cars electronically followed a buried cable in the road.

A few years later General Motors began having problems with a car called the Corvair. It had a rear engine, like the VW bug ... and both had troubles in the wind. Early Corvairs had a tendency to spin out or roll over, and a major safety crisis arose when a young graduate of Harvard Law School named Ralph Nader wrote a book called “Unsafe at Any Speed” with heavy emphasis on the Corvair experience. General Motors (not unlike today) was desperate to resolve its public relations problem, and chose to make a $1 million research grant to MIT to study highway safety (probably worth over $10 million today).

MIT decided to spend most of the money to design a self-driving car. In those days, they called it “dual mode” because the car would operate with a human driver or by automatic control.

After a few years, General Motors decided not to continue their funding with MIT, so researchers contacted Ford Motor Company. From the Ford funding they also received a 1968 Mustang to use as a vehicle to modify for driverless control.

The May 24 Boston Globe contained an enthusiastic op-ed about the future of driverless cars. Five days later the Globe carried a long article by the Associated Press on Google's plan to launch self-driving cars next year. The idea sounds very radical and ambitious, but it is actually the second reinvention of the original idea from the 1930s. Top officials at Google are supporting and funding the concept : they are moving very fast.

Google's idea is different from earlier concepts in that the cars would be completely automated, with no steering wheels or pedals. Google's vehicles would be electric-powered minicars, with a top speed of 25 miles and hour. Already Google has tested modified Lexus and Prius models equipped with radar sensors and cameras doing the driving, but with a human being in the front seat to serve as a “safety driver” in case something goes wrong.

Google made another innovative decision when they decided to package all the new technology into the vehicle and not the road. This means there are no changes to existing streets -- for better or for worse. But if the technology works, it allows the minicars to go anywhere except on expressways.

The self-driving car has come into vogue because of the successful demonstration by the airlines of the capabilities of automatic control, whereby the need of the pilot to make decisions has been reduced significantly. Over the years, advances in auto design have removed many of the manual procedures in ordinary driving : these include automatic transmissions, cruise control, various memory features in seating positions, door locks, and theft protection.

Google reports that the sensors are responsive to cars, trucks and pedestrians. Google plans to test the cars on private roads and later on public roads. New laws are already in place requiring the California Department of Motor Vehicles to issue regulations allowing the public to use completely driverless vehicles and to do so by the summer of next year.

Here is where the fun begins. Or the agony. Many companies are working on the idea, including General Motors. What do they do about safety, accidents and liability? What company is going to want to sell the vehicles or allow their operation and accept the liability if anything goes wrong? Some companies, like General Motors and Toyota, should be able to understand those agonies very well.

Here are some key questions :

* What happens if a box falls off the truck ahead and lands in front of a car? Or if the car is headed towards a large pothole??

* Can the system recognize bicyclists? What about animals running in front of such cars : dogs, squirrels, deer ??

* What to do about a double-parked car on a two-way street?

* How is a car controlled when it is snowy or icy?

* What happens if the car gets a flat tire?

* Does Google put seat belts and airbags in the driverless cars, just in case something goes wrong?

PART 2 to come – Answers and a Look at the Segway ....


The Google self-driving cars are, currently, a bit of a parlor trick, or to be a bit kinder, a concept rather than anything close to a real product.

"The key to Google's success has been that these cars aren't forced to process an entire scene from scratch. Instead, their teams travel and map each road that the car will travel. And these are not any old maps. They are not even the rich, road-logic-filled maps of consumer-grade Google Maps.

They're probably best thought of as ultra-precise digitizations of the physical world, all the way down to tiny details like the position and height of every single curb. A normal digital map would show a road intersection; these maps would have a precision measured in inches. "


Currently, Google has mapped 2,000 of the 4 million miles of US roadways. But, if you want to be driven around Mountain View, California, they'll do fine.

Wow! Very interesting, but count me out. I love driving - the old fashion way.