How Autocar’s former editor predicted the self-driving car back in 1959

Autonomous driving

Maurice Smith, the editor of Autocar 60 years ago, had an impressively vivid knack of spotting future industry trends such as autonomous vehicles

I would have liked to have worked at Autocar under Maurice A Smith (DFC), who was editor in the late 1950s and 1960s. I suspect he was a man with a story or two to tell.

He served as a Wing Commander in World War Two and in 1941 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his achievements. He was also editor of Flight, Autocar’s sister publication when it was owned by the Iliffe and Sons publishing house.

When it came to predicting future trends in the automotive industry, Smith was remarkably prescient. In our archives I stumbled across an editor’s leader in a March 1959 issue of Autocar that proves as much.

In his words, Smith notes the development of anti-lock brakes and more grippy tyres, two trends that were progressing at the time.

Yet he also forecasts collision avoidance systems, adaptive cruise control and autonomous vehicles, as well as many of the aspects of cars we take for granted today, such as smooth transmissions and capable suspension systems.

Smith’s words make reference to the Simca Fulgar, a concept car shown at the 1959 Geneva motor show that previewed how cars might look in the year 2000: atomic powered, radar guided and voice controlled.

Atomic powered? Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Although they might have looked and sounded outlandish to the layman, Smith’s deep knowledge of avionics told him that such ideas could potentially be applied to motor cars. 

Here are his words in full from that issue.

“To look ahead at what is already known to be in store in automobile design and equipment is both exciting and intriguing, even though one may hesitate to estimate the costs. If people want something new and extra they usually manage to afford it – a television set, for example, or a washing machine.

“Already available in exotic spheres of motoring are early forms of air conditioning – that is full conditioning, including refrigeration – but this is still to be regarded as a luxury in most countries. For a start, let us have effective demisting of both front and rear windows.

“More important to world motoring are such innovations as skid-proof braking and new, high-adhesion rubbers for tyres. A little farther ahead may lie electronic and radar aids to give collision warning and partial automatic control of a car in danger.

“More complete electronic control may one day be introduced on long-distance motorways, possibly in conjunction with radar tracks and beams in the road. Such devices are already in being for other purposes and, experimentally, even for cars. Simca’s whole Fulgar dream car now seems far-fetched in time and concept, but, as broadly proposed, its methods of electronic control are possibilities today.

“In the meantime we look forward to the new cars of the next few years in the hope that even in the cheaper models will be incorporated more of the existing features for safety and comfort: level-ride suspension; smooth transmissions and drives with weight spread over the four wheels; fade-free inboard brakes, allowing a minimum of unsprung weight; steering mechanisms of greater precisions; and dual hydraulic braking systems.

“Included with these we also look for all sensible interior safety features, such as rounded and padded edges; total absence of points and sharp angles; sprung and dished steering wheels with an emergency slip-link in the column, and positive door locking. Happily these last-named details cost very little.”

Smith’s forward thinking was largely sound, and his words emphasise how fortunate we are to be able to take such safety and comfort systems for granted in today’s cars. As for predicting the car tech of 2059, I’m afraid I can barely begin to imagine… atomic power, perchance?

Source: Car


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