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Driverless Car of the Future (1957)

TVs that hang on walls? Automatic lights? Food cooked in seconds? American power companies sure had the future figured out! Except for one little thing... we're still waiting on those driverless cars. The futuristic family from this ad bares a striking resemblance to the family of Disneyland TV's 1958 episode, "Magic Highway, USA."

ELECTRICITY MAY BE THE DRIVER. One day your car may speed along an electric super-highway, its speed and steering automatically controlled by electronic devices embedded in the road. Highways will be made safe -- by electricity! No traffic jam.. no collisions... no driver fatigue.

I'm certainly no expert on energy politics of the 1950's, but I must say that the ad takes a weird turn when it starts explaining that power companies are so great because they don't have to wait for an act of Congress to get things done. Can anyone explain the subtleties of the dynamic at work here? Was it merely Cold War chest-pounding about free enterprise or was there a threat to nationalize American power companies around this time? 

Your air conditioner, television and other appliances are just the beginning of a new electric age.

Your food will cook in seconds instead of hours. Electricity will close your windows at the first drop of rain. Lamps will cut on and off automatically to fit the lighting needs in your rooms. Television "screens" will hang on the walls. An electric heat pump will use outside air to cool your house in the summer, heat it in the winter.

You will need and have much more electricity than you have today. Right now America's more than 400 independent electric light and power companies are planning and building to have twice as much electricity for you by 1967. These companies can have this power ready when you need it because they don't have to wait for an act of Congress -- or for a cent of tax money -- to build the plants.

The same experience, imagination and enterprise that electrified the nation in a single lifetime are at work shaping your electric future. That's why in the years to come, as in the past, you will benefit most when you are served by independent companies like the ones bringing you this message -- America's Indpendent Electric Light and Power Companies.


This image is from the ever gracious collector of dead tree ephemera, Tom Z. You may recognize Tom as the man who has supplied me with the vast majority of my Closer Than We Think collection. I owe that gentleman a beer or something.


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Reader Comments (11)

Reads a lot more like fear of nationalization & regulation than anything.

December 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHP

Actually they are here. A mini van crossed Europe and Asia autonomously, and Google has cars driving around California autonomously, and the Google says that at the moment there seems to be no law against it. It's just a matter of time.

December 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRick Schettino

Driverless cars were also promised in the GM exhibits at the 1939 and 1964 New York World's Fairs--and, yes, the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. One of these days...

December 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVirginia Postrel

very interesting posting here..... i like very much.....nice posting......

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Smith

This is a surprisingly prescient article, given that the transistor had only recently been invented, and was still quite large (relatively speaking). Many of the proposed advancements - dimming lights, flat screen TVs, etc. require quite small circuitry.

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWutzke

I remember my dad saying we were supposed to have these by 1980 and he was upset we didn't.

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRetro Hound

I don't remember a move to nationalize the power grid. Back then it still wasn't all that interconnected. My father worked for a large public electric utility. He would have said something about a rumor like that. So I don't think that was going on. But, this was about the time that nuclear power plants were on the drawing boards. Maybe this ad is a little PR in preparation of getting popular support for their construction.

Driverless cars would make a lot of sense on the interstate system. Systems like these would cut down on accidents and lower fuel usage. I can see drawbacks as well. For example, this wouldn't work during heavy snow or ice storms. But overall it would be a real boon to the motoring public.

I've read elsewhere that some speak out against this as another government intrusion in our lives. But I think there are real advantages to these systems. To start out with they wouldn't be used everywhere. Mainly on interstates and toll roads. Enter the traffic stream, select your destination, and relax. When you near your off ramp you receive the announcement that its time to resume manual control. I could get a lot of reading done, or napping,

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKurt

The politics involved here may be a reference to two things: 1) the 1957 passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act, providing federal funding for the construction of a system of interstate highways for transportation and national defense. So while road-building is paid for by tax-payers, they are underlining that electric production is independent. And 2) the federal government had, under the New Deal, financed the Tennessee Valley Authority to build huge hydro-electric projects, but Congress passed legislation in 1959 to make the TVA power system self-financing, and from that point on it would pay its own way. So maybe when this ad ran there was already some debate brewing about that.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMimi Sheller

The TV screen that hangs on the wall like a painting was a staple of the future going all the way back to my childhood in the 60's and before. So now we have 'em. And there's still almost nothing on except ridiculously inane and insipid programing.

December 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFJP

Driverless cars are here:

Google has been running a fleet of them for a couple years now. Over 120,000 miles logged so far, at least 1,000 with no human in the car at all, running in heavy traffic with the rest of us.

December 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEl Cucui

The comment may have been about the co-ops, TVA, REA, and other government subsidized electrical suppliers. Back then, the "investor owned" (this may have been a later phrase) power companies had PR campaigns against goverment subsidized companies that didn't pay taxes and were financed by tax-free government bonds. This put the independent power companiues at a competitive disadvantage. Perhaps the governmrent companies had to wait for government financing or subsidies via an act of Congress (or state legislature) before they could issue bonds to expand or offer additional services. Or it could have been partly an exaggeration.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWEH

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