Sunday, July 1, 2012

In 1958, Disney Imagines the Future of the Highway

As long as I seem to be on an automotive futures theme, I want to draw your attention to part of a Disney television production from 1958, entitled Magic Highway USA. The show was part of the Wonderful World of Disney series, Most of this program explored the history of the highway in the United States. But the last ten minutes looked to the future.  You can watch the whole thing at the link about or just the last nine minutes here:

I love these old predictions of the future. Almost all of them have people flying around in their personal helicopters or living in some undersea colony. The buildings all look like they came out of the Jetsons. But just like in the Futurama exhibit that I wrote about a couple of entries ago, some of the predictions turn out to be remarkably accurate. Others turn out to be true but are embodied in some way other than that described. And of course, there are the "dead wrong" predictions. So how did the Magic Highway USA predictions turn out?  Here's a list of what was in our futures, circa 1958:

Dead Wrong Predictions:

- Multi-colored highway lanes to give motorists a color-coded path to their destination
- Radar screens to allow drivers to see in poor visibility
- Fog-eliminating devices to clear the roadway
- Atomic reactors to melt tunnels through mountains in a single pass
- Cantilevered highways hung from the side of mountains
- Automatic servicing of the car in the homeowner's garage
- Tandem vehicles that separate into parts for different destinations
- Special highways for new forms of vehicles (e.g., tubular highways)
- Individual parking spot for your car in your office at work
- Massive parking "cylinders" at shopping malls instead of parking lots
- Highway "elevators" to lift cars up sheer cliffs
- Gas turbine-powered automobiles
- Atomic-powered automobiles
- Jet engine-powered automobiles
- Cars that convert from highway vehicles to cabin cruisers

Nothing much surprising in this first list. This is the usual science fiction view of the future. What was more interesting to me was the number of predictions that turned out to be true, even if they were accomplished in a slightly different way. Have a look:

More-or-Less Correct Predictions:

- Larger, simpler highway signs that can be easily read at high speeds
- Roads specifically designed for better visibility
- Electronic navigation controls (at least there are now onboard navigation and traffic monitoring GPS systems)
- Rear view mirrors are television cameras (back-up cameras are becoming common)
- Helicopter rescue of traffic accident victims
- Integrated road building machinery that can lay down whole roadways at one pass
- Prefabricated bridges and overpasses
- Form-in-place concrete structures, such as bridges
- Wider, faster expressways that extend the areas from which people can commute to work
- A nation crisscrossed by a network of super highways
- Communities that are built around the design of the freeways for better access and commuting
- Preprogrammed route selectors (think GPS systems)
- Electronics that drive the car to its destination (not here yet but Google is working on a driverless car)
- Business conferences on video screens (... at least for a passenger)
- Family entertainment systems in the car (think DVD and game counsels)
- Ability to know your location on a synchronized electronic map (GPS again)
- Office buildings that combine multi-level parking and office facilities
- Moving sidewalks (at least in airports and convention centers)
- Solar powered automobiles (experimental cars are here. Production cars?  Hmmm).
- Air-conditioned routes across hot deserts (in-car AC is now virtually standard).
- Roads over subfreezing mountains (high-speed roads over subfreezing terrain are common in the northern parts of the country)
- Vehicle travel under the ocean (the Chunnel between the UK and France pops to mind)

Like most technology visions, this program also had its moments where it lapsed into the rhapsodic:

"These giant arteries will link together all the nations and help to create a better understanding among the peoples of the world. As in the past the highway will continue to play a vital role in the progress of civilization. It will be our magic carpet to new hopes, new dreams, and a better way of life for the future!"

Have you ever noticed how technology (whether embodied in better highways or in the internet) is always predicted to improve the relationships between peoples? There is some truth in these euphoric predictions but there is an equally true and opposite reality: technology creates frictions between the peoples of the world. Technology has never been a panacea. And predicting the future of technology remains one of our most difficult challenges.

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