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The concept of driverless cars in the past

The concept of driverless cars in the past

If the mere mention of autonomous vehicles gets your heart pumping, here’s something that might come as a surprise. Your grandma knew about driverless cars long before you even thought about them.

The concept of driverless cars first came to be at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1920, phantom autos were gaining popularity as the vehicles with no driver, and live demonstrations attracted thousands of spectators across the country.

Driverless cars in the past – A revolutionary beginning

driverless cars in the past
An ad for the phantom autos, 1935 (

Driverless cars in the past had one significantly different feature from the driverless vehicles of our future – they weren’t computer-driven.

Phantom autos were remote-controlled by tapping a telegraph key. What we know from the available public sources is that often along with the first driverless vehicle there was a second one following it. The driver of the second vehicle operated the phantom car with the aid of a morse key. It required a distance no bigger than five miles for the second automobile to be able to have control over the first one. Quite like a toy car.

Of course, radio control allowed vehicles to have no driver behind the wheel. But in the sense we know the phenomenon today, phantoms definitely weren’t self-driving.

Yet, imagine the sensation that each of these demonstrations created in the masses. According to the Times Recorder, to catch a glimpse of the phantom auto was to see “one of the most spectacular street events possible.”

The Linrrican Wonder, smart highways, and beyond

driverless cars in the past
The Linrrican Wonder, 1920s

One of the first widely known attempts for driverless cars was the Linrrican Wonder. It was produced in 1925 by Houdina Radio Control, a radio equipment firm.

The Linrrican Wonder traveled through a traffic jam in New York City and was controlled by a transmitting antenna. The car behind the “phantom auto” sent signals to the antenna, which, in turn, put the small electric motors in motion.

Several decades later, scientists began to express more interest in the concept of driverless cars. Their efforts focused on making the vehicle move by implementing devices or electronic equipment built into the roads.

In 1960, the RCA (Radio Corporation of America) introduced the idea of an electronic highway, and soon various states were eager to invest in its development to improve traffic handling.

Driverless vehicles were a hot topic not only because of these demonstrations. Writers of that era could not stop talking about the automobile wonder of the future. Novels such as Utopolis by Werner Illing and The Living Machine by David H. Keller strengthened the fantastic image of vehicles that drive themselves.

The promise of safety

The best thing about phantom cars was the promise of improved safety. While we widely question this feature today, at the beginning of the 20th century, this was a promise directly relevant to the ongoing dissatisfaction with the numerous cars on the roads.

At some demonstrations, phantom autos served as a tool to help automakers gain people’s trust. These cars represented innovative for that time technologies and promised that the vehicles of the future “will only stay in the right lane”, something even cars with drivers often failed to do.

At the time when cars were considered pure evil, this concept created the illusion people needed to restore back their faith.

When we look at the concept of self-driving cars today, what does it give us apart from sleeker design and high-tech experiences?

It is surprising how relevant safety is still today. But somehow the benefit of convenience seems to be dominant.

Before driving was considered a privilege, now it often feels like a burden. And any new technology that can ease that activity for us is welcome in the market. The question is – will automakers finally be able to make the concept a common reality among the masses a century after it first became a topic of discussion?

And will we ever be able to trust a car with no one behind the wheel? Because today, the issue lies beyond the safety of our physical bodies. How will automakers tackle the privacy issue? Read our reflection on the matter and feel free to share your thoughts.


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