1956 GM Film Projected Fictional Autonomous Future

The autonomous automotive future may be coming, but it’s been a long time coming as shown by a 9-minute 1956 General Motors feature film that gives a glimpse of a peak period for American optimism.

GM put together the post-World War II musical “GM – Key To The Future” to showcase its gas turbine Firebird II intended to drive in hands-free “safety lanes” as an answer to traffic congestion plaguing drivers 58 years ago.

It was shown at the 1956 GM Motorama and that was also the year President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act creating the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways – A.K.A. the U.S. Interstate Highway system.

As we hear projections today yet dependent on myriad variables coming into place, in 1956 they imagined 20 years into the future in 1976 things could look much different.

Following is a recent video explaining it, and the actual film is at the bottom of this post:

The film shows technology and human will were vying to make it happen, but “Key To The Future” was not an actual expectation from 1956, as GM CEO Mary Barra told the 21st annual Congress of the Intelligent Transport Society on Sept. 7.

Part of its inspiration had come from GM’s 1952 “Better Highways” essay contest promising the winner a $25,000 prize – close to $250,000 in spending power today. This was offered to the person who came up with the best solution “’to plan and pay for the safe and adequate highways we need,’” said Barra. “Simply stated, the Firebird II was intelligent… and connected… even if some of its technology was considered science fiction.”

The Firebird II featured a regenerative gas turbine, all-wheel independent suspension with automatic load-leveling, power disc brakes, alternator, magnetic ignition key, electric gear selection, and individually-controlled air conditioning.

The Firebird II featured a regenerative gas turbine, all-wheel independent suspension with automatic load-leveling, power disc brakes, alternator, magnetic ignition key, electric gear selection, and individually-controlled air conditioning.

Beyond that, the film is illustrative of much, including that American society has changed markedly over the past six decades.

The car they are using is essentially a jet on wheels with, like the Chevy Volt, four seats. It had a titanium skin and was the second of three Firebird concepts GM created with turbine engines and predates the Jetsons cartoon series of the 1960s.

Chevrolet Electric Networked-Vehicle (EN-V) 2.0.

Chevrolet Electric Networked-Vehicle (EN-V) 2.0.

Today we frequently hear news of technological pieces of an autonomous vehicle puzzle moving into position by not just GM, but all automakers.

The idea has been cooking for a long time, and was planted into the cerebral cortex of society’s collective unconscious no less than 11 years after World War II when many looked toward a brighter future.

The Interstates are now old news, automobiles with turbine engines running on kerosene never made it, but we’re still on the road to the future. What that really looks like, we don’t know, we’re not the first to think we might, but on we go …