50 years on from a forward-looking BBC news report on driverless cars, how close did they get to today’s reality?

Video: BBC Archive releases remarkably prescient 1971 news report on driverless cars

On 5 May, the BBC Archive released a news broadcast from May 1971 showcasing “driverless cars and the future of motoring”, as part of its Retro Transport strand.

Self-driving 1971 style

Filmed at the Road Research Laboratory (RRL) in Berkshire – which became the Transport Research Laboratory, and then TRL, which now runs London’s Smart Mobility Living Lab – our man from the Beeb makes some bold predictions.

So, with the massive benefit of hindsight, how did he get on?

He begins: “There’ll be 30 million cars on the roads of Britain by the end of this century. And motoring will be quite different.”

That’s a strong start as, according to Statista, the number of licensed cars in the UK in the year 2000 was 27.2 million, hugely up from around 10 million when he made the prediction. Not bad crystal-ball gazing!

He goes on to discuss how on-board black-box recorders will assist with toll-paying and traffic regulation, saying: “They’ve been showing us for the first time some of the machinery which will enable them to bill us by computer for driving in these places.

“The idea is that at the entrance to the busy city centre or to other crucial points on the road, there’ll be electrified loops of wire underneath the road surface. And as a car passes, it activates these electric wires.”

Not 10 out of 10 maybe, but still remarkably prescient given congestion charging and telematics-based insurance are now a reality.

It also brings to mind our interview last year with Elliot Hemes, of IPG Automotive UK, who suggested:You could say, for example, you can’t use the M6 Toll unless you have vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications. That would enable platooning.”

So, 50 years on, in terms of road-charging and vehicle connectivity in the UK, his prediction is well on the way to becoming true. Can he keep it up?

The next segment covers research into the most efficient means of getting vehicles on and off Channel Tunnel trains.

Again, he’s pretty spot on, apart from optimistically suggesting this could be in operation by 1978. In reality, construction didn’t start for another decade and the service wasn’t available until 1994. Still, on the big points, he hasn’t been wrong yet.

Driverless crystal-ball gazing

The report saved the best til last, with the segment on self-driving beginning just over two-minutes in.

The reporter enthused: “The very last word is the totally automatic car, no driver at all. The whole thing’s remotely controlled by cables and electrics under the road.”

Hmmm, that’s sounds more like Scalextric than an autonomous vehicle.

Still, he pressed on: “Steering, accelerating, gear-changing, braking and stopping, all the switches and electronics in the car could be provided for £100.”

If only. Maybe costs will come down over time and he’ll end up being proved right.

Thankfully, he rediscovers his inner Nostradmus towards the end, explaining: “The radar device on the front will one day be able to tell how near you are to the car in front of you and slow you down automatically.”

Basically, automated emergency braking (AEB).

Adding: “It’s all needed because you and I are not as good as machines. We tire, we lose concentration, we get cross. One day we will just be able to link our car onto an automatic system to take us right up the motorway.”

I heard something very similar at the Zenzic Connected and Automated Mobility (CAM) Innovators event just last month.

He concluded: “So, we’ve had a glimpse or two of driving of the future. It’s going to be probably easier, certainly more regimented. And the day may come when the driver becomes totally redundant.”

Most impressive, as Darth Vader said in Empire Strikes Back, especially considering the Star Wars universe was still a figment of George Lucas’s imagination.