FUN FRIDAY: Self-driving cars in 1911

Well, not quite. This recently unearthed video, “The “Automatic Motorist,” is a six-minute short showing a look at the future of travel, as it was seen before the first world war. It looks pretty antique and cheesy to us, but not only are the effects state-of-the-art for their day, audiences at the time would have seen this as exceedingly modern. In 1911 most Americans still didn’t own a car, most streets were still unpaved, and most towns didn’t have any large buildings.

Check it for yourself

Yes, the whole thing looks pretty silly. And then of course there’s the robot driver. Or, as audiences at the time would have said, “automatic motorist,” since the word “robot” hadn’t even been invented yet!! Obviously this is a rather silly looking thing but interestingly, this film was made about 50 years before most of those 1950s and 1960s sci-fi classics and the robot (uh, automatic motorist) looks like he came right out of one of those drive-in cheeseballs. That’s pretty impressive if you think about it.

The dream of the self-driving car

Obviously, the idea of a self-driving car has been around a long time. You can see it in movies, TV shows, and books throughout the last century. It’s enticing to think we could hand off the chore of freeway driving to our vehicles. Perhaps the most well-fleshed-out expression of the idea was in 2002’s Minority Report, which imagined not only self-driving cars, but smart highways that allowed cars to interact with each other for the safest experience.

Of course for every upbeat and hopeful expression of self-driving cars, there’s a film like Upgrade. This 2018 film came and went in theaters, but it provides a very interesting scenario where self-driving cars start hacking each other in the service of a master AI.

A reality?

We are closer to self-driving than ever before thanks to systems like Tesla’s Autopilot and GM’s Super Cruise. Using cameras, radar, and other sensing systems, cars so equipped will do a lot of the work. But it’s still a long way from true self-driving, in which the human has no interaction at all. I’d hate to think we’ll wait another 111 years for it, but in the end it wouldn’t surprise me.

I’ll bet you ten million dollars that the movies we make today won’t age as well as “The Automatic Motorist.” Of course you’ll have to wait about 85 years to collect on that bet, and by then ten million dollars ought to just about buy you a cup of coffee.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 9,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.