self-driverIn 1991 the US Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. The goal; authorize $650 million to be spent over the course of six years to develop the technology for driverless cars running on automated highways. For all the good that did us.

Automated or self-driven cars have been in the news more and more recently, as has the idea of having a “smart highway”. Sadly, the fact that Congress was allocating millions of tax payers’ dollars to this idea in the 1990s and we have nothing to show for it should not be surprising. Automated cars and highways have been around since the first cars rolled down the road.

The mismanagement of funds by the federal government aside, in the 1990s we did not have the technology that we have today. Consumer GPS and the internet were all in their infantile stages; plus wireless technology was not nearly as integrated into our society as it is now. One can argue that the lack of technological power did not stop Americans from reaching the moon in the 1969, but putting the lives of the daily commuter into the hands of robot chauffeurs is a different story entirely.


Even with these technological limitations though, in 1991 Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act and in 1994 The National Automated Highway System Consortium was formed. The National Automated Highway System Consortium was nine core organizations from the public and private sectors: General Motors, Bechtel Corporation, The California Department of Transportation, Carnegie Mellon University, Delco Electronics, Hughes Electronics, Lockheed Martin, Parsons Brinckerhoff, and the University of California-Berkeley. The goal — develop a Congressional report regarding “hands-off, feet-off” driving.

Results were in by 1997 for the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act and The National Automated Highway System Consortium when a demonstration was held in San Diego. Following the success in San Diego, a test vehicles traveled down 7.6 miles of the HOV lane on Interstate 15 in July of 1997.  The results were so promising that The Associated Press reported that the prototype highway should be running by 2002.

Alas, driverless cars running on automated highways never came to fruition. So what happened? Blame the legislation. The Act never defined what was meant by a “fully automated highway system.” Also, The Act never provided any long term goals for the Department of Transportation, only to have something by 1997. Once that was accomplished in the form of an automated prototype car in 1997 the idea and the funding fizzled. Bureaucracy at its best.

However, thanks to private-public partnerships, interest in self-driving cars is on the rise again. Google, Volvo, and Tesla are just some of the companies working on self-driving car technology, and the technology is much, much further along than 15 years ago. States like California and Nevada have even gone so far as to legalize automated automobiles, and after decades of wishful thinking, self-driving cars might finally be in our grasp.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Andrew Meggison was born in the state of Maine and educated in Massachusetts. Andrew earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and International Relations from Clark University and a Master’s Degree in Political Science from Northeastern University. Being an Eagle Scout, Andrew has a passion for all things environmental. In his free time Andrew enjoys writing, exploring the great outdoors, a good film, and a creative cocktail. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMeggison