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99% Invisible: Johnnycab

On the September 4, 2015 edition of 99% Invisible.

In 1956, General Motors hosted a car expo called “Motorama.” As with all car expos, Motorama was a chance to show off concept cars and other kinds of long-shot projects that they hoped would revolutionize the auto industry. One of the most forward-looking things on display wasn’t a car, but a movie.

The film was called “Key to the Future.” In it, we see a family of four cruising along a desert highway in a beautiful, futuristic GM Firebird. But this car was actually just the set dressing for what GM really wanted to show us: their vision for a self-driving vehicle.

For nearly as long as there’s been an auto industry, there have been dreams of a car that drives on its own. In 1956, the year that “Key to the Future” was shown at Motorama, there were nearly 38,000 vehicle-related deaths in the United States. Since then, there hasn’t been year with fewer than 30,000 people killed in car accidents. And because more than 90% of all automobile accidents are all attributable to human error, for some industry people, a fully-automated car is a kind of holy grail [...]