Before its time: Consortium pushed for automated driverless cars in the 1990s

Automated driverless cars have been a popular topic for some months now, brought to the forefront of public attention by Google's efforts to develop such vehicles. One would be tempted to believe – science fiction stories and movies aside – that such ambitions are a new reality, the result of our ever-expanding technologies that allow us to pursue this seemingly futuristic mode of transportation. Under such an assumption, the reality is surprising – in the early 1990s, Congress passed a bill devoting $650,000 towards developing technologies for driverless vehicles, a project undertaken by a consortium composed of nine organizations. In fact, one "driverless" vehicle was demonstrated on California's Interstate 15 for over 7 miles in 1997, and we have a video of it after the jump.

The automated highway system was undertaken by a group formed in 1994 called the National Automated Highway System Consortium, which was composed of nine primary organizations including General Motors and the California Department of Transportation. The consortium was required by Congress to demonstrate the feasibility of driverless vehicles by 1997, something it did down to the wire in an on-vehicle demonstration showing a driver behind the wheel of a self-driving car, arms sticking out the window and sunroof. You can see it for yourself in the video below.

The technology involved was quite primitive by today's standards, with – as the Smithsonian pointed out – such seemingly requisite technologies like consumer GPS not even existing at the time the project was undertaken. And yet, with toggle switch boxes and thick laptops offering less power than the smartphone in your pocket, a system was devised that could take a car through a series of obstacles that it successfully avoided, such as traffic barrels placed in a lane.

As with today, the idea of driverless cars and automated highways drew quite a bit of criticism at the time, with, for example, Marcia Lowe of the Worldwatch Institute saying in 1993, "Smart cars and highways have quietly emerged as the latest and most-expensive proposal to solve the nation's traffic problems. Government spending on the little known Intelligent Vehicle and Highway Systems program is expected to exceed $40 billion over the next 20 years ... despite evidence that smart cars and highways may well exacerbate the very problems they are supposed to solve."

Why did the progress stall (again, pun intended)? According to the Smithsonian, it was due to the very legislation that provided funding to develop such technologies. The lack of direction was one issue, as well as no solid definition having ever been provided over what the Congressional legislation meant by "automated highways." As such, while the consortium had an idea and the motivation to take it as far as it did, it lacked a solid singular goal to pursue and dissolved as funding ran out.

Still, one must admire the future mindset of those who undertook the project, and wonder where we would be today had efforts to develop such vehicles continued rather than falling back into the "idea box" – we could very well have had driverless cars in place today, or be much farther along in the process than is reality. If nothing else, this shows that automated cars are more than a novelty idea, and that it is only a matter of time before we're all kicking back while the car does the work for us.

SOURCE: Smithsonian