cars would be pretty useless without tomorrow's highways. Sure,
you've got an aluminium bullet of a motor
car crammed with every convenience and contrivance known to modern
man, but that won't get you very far if your wonder car has to
navigate over dirt roads with the cross section of a wash board and
speed limits designed around aging plough horses.
This is a bit of a problem if you've set your heart on making the
motor car one of the totem's of Future Past, so it's small wonder that
as the car of tomorrow emerged, so did plans for the highway of
It isn't hard to imagine what yesterday's vision of
the highways of tomorrow were; that's because we live with those
visions every day whenever we travel on the Autobahn, or the M1, or
even the more recently built city streets. Today, we're
used to seeing long, straight motorways with gentle, inclined curves,
multiple lanes to accommodate cars travelling at different speeds, on
and off ramps, centre dividers, and overpasses and clover
replacing intersections. They're the commonplace of highway
engineering and we take them for granted. But after the First
World War, such ideas were revolutionary and proposals to cover entire
nations and even continents with such systems were as visionary as
putting a man on the Moon.
The thing is, roads are different from machines,
vehicles or buildings.. You can build even the largest
in a matter of months and
they're expected to last for only a few decades at
most, but when a road is laid down, it's there for centuries, if not
millennia. Take a spin on Watling Road in England and you're
motoring where Caesar's legions once marched. It also
takes decades to build a road network and today even projects like the
American Interstate system or the British motorways are still being
built over half a century since the first ground was broken.
Small wonder that the roadways of tomorrow have
bumped into those of today–or even of yesterday, as the old dreams run
smack into today's needs, such as Birmingham's notorious Spaghetti
Junction, Los Angeles's permanent tailbacks, and the M25's 21st
century roads stuck with 1940s bridges.
We tend to think of the highway of tomorrow as all
multilane freeways, great sweeping bridges, and futuristic
architecture, and though there was all that, a lot of the planning by
people like Norman Bel Geddes revolved around rethinking how a road
actually works; how to make it more than a strip of tarmac with a
couple of signs at the crossroads.
Highway designers of the '30s compared the roads of
those days to a car that had been stripped of all its accessories; it
might be able to run, but it would be uncomfortable and unsafe.
In those days, even something as basic as
eyes or standardised
road signs were unknown. If motoring was going to be fast,
safe, and pleasurable, then the highway engineers would have to do for
the road what car designers did for the family runabout.
Some of the ideas were simple and obvious things
like proper lane markings, improved signage, and installing mirrors on
blind hilltops and corners. Some were more ambitious, such as
the hydraulic lane dividers used in Chicago that can be raised
and lowered to alter the number of lanes available to cars going in
one direction or the other. Others were as interesting as they
were impractical, such as road-level street lighting that would turn
on when a car approached and off after it past. These did double
duty as dispensers for de-icing chemicals in the winter. Later
versions suggested microwaves
If the thought of tyre-toasting roads seems a bit
out there, then consider the idea of turning the road into a giant
phonograph that speaks traffic warning as you roll over it.
Presumably, you can also gauge your speed depending on whether the
voice sound like Orson Welles or Alvin and the Chipmunks.
By 1960, imagined the
designers of the 1930s
, the motorways of the future would be incredible, continent-spanning
networks that would be self-illuminating, self-de-icing, and carrying
traffic at average speeds of 100 MPH. Whether it used
clover leafs or long, curving feeder lanes, intersections would be a
thing of the past and even city traffic would run with smooth
efficiency as pedestrian traffic was raised to upper level walkways
and freight relegated to lower level tunnels.
The highways themselves would be colourful affairs
with different hues of plastic coating telling the driver which lane
was which. Some lanes would even be reserved for new
hovercars or specialised vehicles for urban
The cities themselves would change, much as they
did in reality, with dense urban centres giving way to developments
spread over the countryside to provide open air and greenery to the
all the grand engineering and careful planning, there was a limit to
how much the roads could be improved and as early as the 1930s the
biggest limiter was recognised as the motor car itself. It was
one thing to make the roads safer, faster, and more efficient, but the
car had to keep pace as well.
helps, of course, as do things like more
safety features, such as anti-collision
radar and more efficient power
plants, but the one component that we still haven't been able to
perfect is the nut behind the wheel. If only there was some way
to get the car to drive itself, then the job would be so much easier.
And why not? Even in the '30s aeroplanes
could practically fly themselves in a spot of good weather. So
could ships equipped with gyro compasses and automatic pilots.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the sky and the ocean are a lot less
complex than even the best built highway and simple autopilots in cars
would lead to complicated crashes.
But that didn't stop designers of the 1930s from
coming up with ideas like the "automatic beam control",
which would control cars on the highways of tomorrow through radio
beams from control towers or bridges over the highway that would
regulate speed, distance between cars, and automatically control
it was a great idea, but hampered by that tiny
detail that no one had invented a radio beam device. By the
1950s, this had been discarded by General Motors in favour of a system
that used wires embedded in the road to control their
So, how about letting the driver do the actual
driving, but giving him up to the minute information? That
seemed like a logical and more practical alternative while the
engineers sorted out beam controlling. Transmit information like
traffic density, safe speeds, weather conditions, etc. to the car of
tomorrow from the highway of tomorrow. You could use lamp posts
as radio aerials; that sort of thing.
It was a very good idea and we have something like
it today with our GPS and the like, but it's not a very good thing to
base a highway system on and it showed up a fatal flaw in the beam
control idea as well. Designers recognised that systems that controlled
or transmitted information to cars depended on the cars being
standardised. One heterodox or faulty car in the system would be a menace.
Devices relying on photocells to light up lane dividers and the like
were more practical because they don't require any modifications to
If all else fails, eliminate the driver all
together by introducing something like this
roller highway from
We have a similar system today. We call it
Finally, eliminate both the road and the train with
the Transdrive system that looks like the unholy marriage of a ski
lift and a
Scalextric set. Installing the funnel thing to
catch the riding hook was easy part. Explaining to the car owner
that his roof was torn off because cars aren't designed to be picked
up like dinky toys is the hard part.
Asking how convertibles were supposed to use this
just caused the inventor to wander off and sulk.