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Forerunner to today's autonomy: 1956 GM Firebird II concept included an onboard "guidance" system for driverless operation (image: GM).

Technology time-warp

Automotive history is rife with examples that demonstrate autonomy is far from a new idea.

While auto engineers like to quip that vehicle electrification “is a century old and still in search of a battery,” it’s no joke that many of today’s “advanced” technologies are rooted in concepts first explored decades ago. Compared with the earliest speed control (1916) and remotely controlled cars (early 1920s), for example, even power steering is a relatively new thing.

Technology enthusiasts at SAE's WCX event in Detroit each year never miss the activities of SAE’s Mobility History Committee. For 2018, the energetic group draws attention to milestones on the route to the self-driving future. It’s “The History of the Future” told in WCX Learning Lab presentations and displayed in the rare, pioneering vehicles on the show floor, according to MHC chair Martin Rowell.

“After more than a century of innovation we have begun planning the launch of self-driving cars. No longer a futurist pipe dream, we can already see autonomous functionality at work on public roads,” Rowell noted. “The car of the future is almost here, and it will change everything—but how did we get here?”

Milestone vehicles in the “Road to Autonomy” display showcase that evolution. Additionally, the MHC also will present Technical Sessions in a 3rd floor Conference Room covering Early Automotive Aerodynamics & Streamlining; the WWI Liberty Truck (see sidebar below); Cars and Culture and the “alt-fuel” Stanley Steamer.

1956 GM Firebird II: Self-guiding road rocket

This titanium-bodied, turbine-powered wondercar was the second in a quartet of Motorama concepts, all dubbed Firebird, developed by GM from 1953 to 1959.  Design chief Harley Earl was clearly inspired by the jet fighter aircraft of the period. His aim with the four Firebirds was to meld the latest in aerospace design and engineering within GM’s future road-vehicle vision.

While Firebird I was a narrow single-seater—like a fighter fuselage on four wheels—the Firebird II was wider and accommodated four people within its bubble-canopied cockpit. Titanium sheet was cutting-edge material in 1956, and the 200 hp (150 kW) gas turbine developed in house featured exhaust-heat recovery—it helped reduce thermal extremes on the car’s tail while also powering the accessories. And Firebird II featured a guidance system that enabled the car to drive itself by following electric signals from wire embedded in the roadway.

1912 Cadillac Model 30: No more cranking

The 1912 edition of the Model 30 was the first commercially available ICE-powered vehicle with Charles Kettering’s revolutionary Delco electric starter. As its advertising indicated, this Caddy was a game changer. The Delco starter system charged the car’s battery and was used to power the full electrical system. In one fell swoop, Cadillac eliminated the hand crank and robbed all electric vehicles (which were popular then) of their greatest asset: easy and clean starting.

1916 Scripps Booth Model C: Electric posh

Designed for ease of use, the Model C included a suite of electric amenities and an early speed control mechanism designed to allow the driver’s foot to rest on long journeys. To maintain a fixed speed the driver set a lever in the steering wheel to hold the throttle in position. The mechanism was released with a tap on the brake pedal. This staggered three-seat roadster also featured an electric starter, electric door latches, electrical headlights, and an electric “Klaxet” horn operated by depressing a button in the center of the steering wheel.

1918 Detroit Electric: EV convenience

This early example of electric vehicle technology was produced by the Anderson Electric Car Co. in Detroit. Introduced in 1907 and discontinued in 1939, the Detroit Electric ran on rechargeable lead-acid batteries and had a top speed of 20 mph (32 km/h). Owners were able to squeeze 80 miles (129 km) from a single charge in ideal thermal conditions. The company produced approximately 13,000 examples of this popular and long-lived early EV.

1940 Olds Hydra-Matic: 1st automatic

In 1940 GM’s Oldsmobile division introduced the first commercially available car with an automatic transmission. The Hydra-Matic was a game changer on the road to autonomy by taking the task of shifting gears out of the driver’s hands (and left foot). Availability soon expanded to Cadillacs. The new automatic was an immediate hit—GM sold 200,000 cars so equipped prior to WWII. During wartime, the Hydra-Matic was installed in the M5 Stuart and M24 Chaffee light tanks. Military duty gave GM engineers access to a unique pool of user data that allowed them to greatly improve the automatic in the postwar period.

1960 Cadillac Coupe DeVille: Cruise pioneer

Modern cruise control was introduced to the world on the 1958 Chrysler Imperial and shortly thereafter released as an option on the 1960 Cadillac Coupe DeVille. This system represented a substantial improvement upon the earlier forms of speed control. By calculating the ground speed based on driveshaft rotations using the rotating speedometer cable, the system was able to set the throttle position as needed with a bi-directional screw drive electric motor. 

Development of the technology proceeded rapidly following the release of the feature in 1958. A decade later, RCA introduced a new version called Automotive Electronic Cruise Control. This invention added a digital memory to the device, which eventually allowed cruise control to be integrated with the yet-to-be-invented electronic accident avoidance systems and engine controllers, paving the way for the Adaptive Cruise Control of today.

1988 Cadillac Voyage: VR visionary

Unveiled at GM’s ‘Teamwork and Technology’ show in January 1988, the Voyage (say it with a French accent) previewed a remarkable serving of future tech within its huge 212.6-in (5.4-m) body. Aerodynamics? 0.28 Cd. Active bodywork? The front wheel skirts moved with the steering. Advanced lighting? LED rear lights and turn signals. Sensors? Rearview camera. Plus keyless entry, voice recognition and integrated navigation with route guidance and color screen. All designed in 1987. Equally impressive was the Voyage’s all-wheel-drive system and claimed 200-mph  (322 km/h) top speed.

2007 Chevrolet Tahoe: Autonomy “Boss”

This modified Chevy Tahoe made history in 2007 by safely and autonomously navigating a shared road in a simulated urban environment to win the third DARPA Grand Challenge. The event was created by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as platform to advance the technologies needed to develop autonomous ground vehicles. Nicknamed “The Boss,” the truck was a collaborative effort between Carnegie Mellon University and GM. The development team included CMU students and faculty, and engineers from GM, Caterpillar, Continental, and Intel.

Fusing data from multiple radars, lidar and cameras, a Position and Orientation System with integrated GPS and a MobileEye Vision System, the “Boss” successfully traversed the course by estimating the location of other vehicles, static obstacles, and the lay of the road.

2010 EN-V Jiao:  ‘Skateboard’ EV

In many ways this 2010 prototype vehicle brings us back to where we began. Like the early electric cars, the EN-V is a two-seat, EV specifically designed for urban mobility. The biggest difference is that, as a product of over 100 years of evolution and innovation, the EN-V is an autonomous car.

Developed under GM’s head of advanced research, Dr. Chris Borroni-Bird, EN-V (electric networked vehicle) was a collaboration with gyroscopic-scooter maker Segway. It used the compact ‘skateboard’ platform concept developed by Borroni-Bird and Dr. Larry Burns, with Segway electric wheel motors. EN-V was embedded with a combination of GPS, vehicle-based sensors and V2V technology, much of which was extrapolated from the DARPA-winning “Boss” Tahoe.

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries provide power and enable the little pod to achieve a minimum of 25 mi (40 km) operating range per charge, at which point the batteries can be recharged using a standard outlet.

SAE on the Western Front

SAE expertise developed the famous Liberty Truck that pioneered standardized military vehicle design—and helped win WWI.

Soon after World War I began in 1914, motorized vehicles slowly entered military service, supplementing horse-drawn cargo wagons. By the time the U.S. entered the war in spring 1917, the Allies were operating dozens of different motor trucks, from dozens of makers, on the Western Front. Little if any parts commonality existed among any of them.

This situation created a service and logistics nightmare for the Allied armies. In Paris, an entire 12-story building with hundreds of clerks was dedicated to managing over 2 million component part numbers for the army motor vehicles then in use, according to Albert Mroz, author of American Military Vehicles of World War I, An Illustrated History (McFarland & Co., 2009).

Taking a page from Henry Ford’s well-known playbook, U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps planners moved quickly to develop specifications for a standardized truck design that could be produced rapidly by industry. The call to action was amplified by the influential trade journal The Automobile and Automotive Industries which editorialized, “For every hour of delay, men will die sudden and horrible deaths.” Presumably the writer meant death on the battlefield rather than in the parts office in Paris.

The young Society of Automobile Engineers played a major role in developing the standardized vehicle that soon became known as the Liberty Truck. A group of SAE members, mostly employed by truck makers and all ‘on loan’ from their companies, spearheaded the Liberty program. In August 1917, the 50-strong team began work to meet the Army’s specs. The aggressive production date was just six months away. 

Trucks of two primary payload ratings were developed. The 1½-ton (1360-kg) model was called the Standard A. There was far greater demand for the larger 3- to 5-ton (2722-kg to 4536-kg) Standard B model with 160-in (4064-mm) wheelbase; it became the Liberty.

Meantime, 150 suppliers were engaged to produce the 7,500 parts in the bill of material. The Liberty’s powertrain featured a 4-cylinder, 424-in3 (6.9-L) gasoline engine, with cast aluminum crankcase and cast-iron cylinders and heads. Bore and stroke measured 4.75 x 6 in (121 x 152 mm). Supplied by engine makers Continental, Waukesha, and Wisconsin, the mammoth four generated 52 hp (39 kW). Spark was provided by two separate (magneto and battery type) ignition systems to ensure reliability.

A 4-speed transmission and worm-drive rear axle completed the robust driveline. Testing showed the unladen Standard B Liberty to be capable of 15 mph (24 km/h).

The Army selected 15 truck manufacturers, including famous marques Brockway, Diamond T, Packard and Pierce-Arrow, to produce the Standard B Liberty. Their factories began shipping the first of 7,500 Liberty Trucks to France in February 1918—about 11 weeks after development began.

Other OEMs not included in the program developed their own models for military use. Mack, for example, delivered over 6,000 of its famous AC “Bulldog” model, beloved by British and U.S. forces.

Developed with SAE expertise, the Liberty Truck helped win WWI and established U.S. military vehicle standardization. More than 9,300 examples were produced before the remaining 43,000-unit order was cancelled following the Armistice on November 11, 1918.  — Lindsay Brooke

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