Daniel Albert at n+1:
The American “love affair” with the automobile is often mistaken for a love affair with driving. We think driver distraction arose with the smartphone, but truth be told most Americans never liked driving much. When Oldsmobile debuted Motoring’s Magic Carpet on the eve of World War II, it lamented the struggles of the little lady with a standard transmission: “After nineteen distinct manual operations, she’s finally ready to drive.” Relief came from the Hydra-Matic drive, the original automatic transmission. Times have changed but the dream has not. Today, Mercedes promises a “flying carpet” ride from its laser-guided Magic Body Control active suspension system. Let them wrestle with their overtaxed motors among the dark satanic mills of Europe. Americans invented power steering. Come to think of it, flying carpets don’t even need steering wheels, do they?4
Those who read robot news may think I’m on about the Google Car, the result of Pentagon funding, Stanford computer genius Sebastian Thrun, and of course money from all those little internet adverts. The origin of Google’s small self-driving fleet—each with sixty-four spinning laser beams mounted to its roof and hacker wires running down to the wheels—dates to the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, where Stanley, Stanford’s VW SUV (now on display at the Smithsonian), beat twenty-three other teams in a race through the desert.