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Driving Back through the History of Autonomous Travel

Driving Back through the History of Autonomous Travel

There have been several significant advancements in autonomous systems in the last decade, particularly in the field of self-driving cars.  Whether it’s a self-driving car from Google or Tesla, there has been no shortage of headlines proclaiming the future of travel. While these accomplishments and advancements are significant in our time, they point to a much larger historical trend that makes such technological innovations an inevitability and suggest that their true potential may yet be unknown to us. 

Although the world’s first remote-piloted car was debuted by General Motors at the 1939 World’s Fair,  the first autonomous (self-driving) car prototypes were not introduced until the 1980s after nearly 30 years of testing.  The idea of a self-driving car perhaps began with General Motors’ demonstration in 1939, but it would take another 14 years before serious testing began on a truly automated system.  In 1953, RCA Labs became the first to successfully demonstrate the viability of a self-driving car when they did so using a miniature car guided and controlled by wires on a laboratory floor.  With the system’s viability established, RCA Laboratories worked with the State of Nebraska to construct a full-size test system just outside of Lincoln.

This proposed test system consisted of a series of circuits buried along stretches of pavement, paired with a series of lights on the edges of the roads.  By sending impulses from the circuits to the car, the test was able to successfully control the direction, speed, and velocity of the car.  Despite the demonstrated success of this automated system, further development was hampered due to the cost of installing the necessary support infrastructure.  While RCA Labs’ autonomous system proved a novel approach when applied to vehicle piloting and infrastructure, it is framed on technological advancements that had been applied to railroads for decades at that point.  A century earlier, railroads played a massive role in expanding the United States to its current size.  

With a network of railroads as the fuel source, the United States expanded rapidly during the Industrial Revolution and continued to do so through the end of the 19th century.  The presence of railroads grew in tandem with the United States’ growing population and territory, and, by the 1870s, railroads were beginning to experience challenges stemming from this rapid expansion.  Running on fixed rails, trains are particularly susceptible to collisions and delays, and the process of railroad signaling was adopted at its creation to control the movement of traffic.  However, traditional hand signaling was proving antiquated by the 1870s and new systems were developed to allow this network of railroads to continue supporting this period of American growth.  

One of the first automated systems to be developed–automatic block systems for railroad signaling–was introduced in 1872.  With signals placed on trains, a train’s movement would short-circuit the electric current supply and de-energize the relay.  Using this system, railroads were able to greatly reduce collisions and delays by only allowing one train per block at a time.  When automatic systems for railroad signaling were introduced, they solved a massive problem that was hampering the reliability to railroad networks.  In the subsequent decades, railroads continued to expand, snaking out to every corner of the United States.  This twisted, dense network of passenger and freight rail, intercity lines, companies, and subsidiaries relied heavily upon simple advancements in automation technology as automated signaling systems continued to improve.  By the 1920s, advancements in automation allowed for various experiments into creating the world’s first driverless train.  And, again, despite similar viability testing, it would be decades before the first fully automated trains would be introduced to the public.  More so, these early tests of automated train systems provided the initial framework for our first attempts at self-driving cars.

The parallelled histories of car and railroad automation provide important insights into the effect that the current push towards AI and automation will have on the development of technology in the future.  Americans demonstrated a preference for the freedom and luxuries that automobile travel affords as our vast network of railroad infrastructure was slowly replaced with roads and highways.  This recently renewed push towards automated driving systems has historical similarities to the environment that brought about the first automated train testing, suggesting that technologies currently being applied to self-driving cars may have reverbating effects in technological advancements yet unknown.