Yesterday's Car Tech Today

From the flying car to the in-dash record player, we look at yesterday's predictions of today's high-tech cars, and see just how right -- or wrong -- they were.

The Background

Predicting the future of technology is the favorite pastime of gadget-lovers everywhere. But it's nothing new: People have been predicting the future of technology since, well, before there was very much technology around at all. And it's certainly not restricted to gadgets. People have been predicting the future of the automobile since around the time the first Model T hit the streets.

Let's look back at some of the most interesting predictions about car technology to see how well they fared.

THEN: The Flying Car

Ah, the flying car. As long as cars have been hitting the road, dreamers have been imagining ways of getting them into the air. And you can't even place all of the blame on George Jetson: The image of the two ladies shown here is from 1905 -- long before George and his family moved to outer space.

NOW: Meet the Roadable Aircraft

Meet the Transition Roadable Aircraft, aka the flying car. This personal airplane sports foldable wings that can be stowed away for road use -- which is a good thing, since this vehicle has the ability to drive on any surface road. And as an added bonus, the Roadable Aircraft looks pretty cool parked in the driveway.

THEN: The Highway Hi-Fi

AM radio just wasn't enough for the crafty inventor behind Chrysler's Highway Hi-Fi. Back in 1956, someone had the idea of building an in-dash record player. Yes, a record player. It was designed to keep playing through bumps and potholes, and featured a padded arm that was supposed to prevent the record from scratching. As ingenious as this player was, it's not hard to see why the device never really moved into the mainstream.

NOW: Hi-Fi and Hands-Free

Gone are the days when satellite radio or a dock for your MP3 player was cutting edge. Now, it's all about the dashboard as an entertainment system. Consider Ford's Sync in-car entertainment system, which lets you control entertainment options through a touchscreen console or from LCDs that appear near the speedometer. And gone are the days when you had to pop in a CD: You can use the car's voice control system to control the Pandora app running on your smartphone, which will play your tunes over the car stereo.

THEN: A Solar-Powered, Folding Car

Yes, you read that right: In 1939, an article in the San Antonio Light predicted that we would one day see solar-powered cars that could be folded. The engine would be detachable, so you could carry it into the shop for repairs, and the car itself could be folded in half and stored in a small space. What remains unclear from this illustration is where, exactly, the driver might sit.

NOW: Solar Power, Sort Of

Folding cars haven't come into fruition, but solar-powered cars are around, though they're largely experimental and hardly widespread. If you have the know-how to build one yourself, you can enter it in the World Solar Challenge, a race across Australia. Closer to home, however, automaker GM is one of the companies turning its attention to solar power, having recently invested in a company that manufactures canopies covered in solar panels, which could be used to provide charging stations for electric cars.

THEN: Charge It Up

Speaking of electric cars, that's another idea that's been around for a while. In the 1960s, one magazine predicted that it would be 10 to 20 years before we saw an electric-powered car for consumer use, but depicted a Holiday Inn complete with an electric car charging station. Fast-forward to 1979, when Popular Science went further, discussing the type of battery needed to power your future electric car and including an artistic rendering of an electric fueling and service station.

NOW: Plug It In

True story: My sixth-grade teacher missed school one day because he'd forgotten to plug in his electric car the night before. Perhaps he should have waited for the Chevy Volt or the Nissan Leaf, today's electric cars that are far more advanced than their 1980s-era predecessors.

THEN: How About a Seat Belt?

This 1950 issue of Popular Science looked at "How Cars Can Be Made Safer" and came up with some pretty spot-on, if basic, ideas. Like seat belts, for one. It also recommended that all passengers except the driver face backwards for increased safety. And you know, they were on to something: New recommendations for child safety in automobiles suggest having children face backwards for as long as possible in order to keep them safer. Just don't look too closely at the 1950s rendering of a child safety seat: it's enough to make any parent shudder. (Yes, that's it in the picture, hanging from the dashboard.)

NOW: Crumple Zones, Air Bags, and More

From crumple zones to air bags and child safety latch systems, automobile safety has come a long way since the 1950s. And it doesn't end there: Car manufacturers are adding technologically advanced safety features all the time, including backup cameras that can see behind your car as it moves in reverse and lane-assist technologies that prevent sleepy or distracted drivers from drifting out of their lane.

THEN: Shopping Cart or Shopping Car

Cars have always been useful for shopping trips, but few cars are made for shopping like this 1966 concept car from GM. The three-wheeled vehicle features an integrated shopping cart that you could wheel into the store, fill with groceries, and then load right back into the car.

NOW: The Family Mobile

It's not a solely a car for shopping, nor is it the most cutting-edge vehicle, but today's minivan is the ultimate family mobile. It may not have a stowaway shopping cart, but many models sport stowaway seats, so you have room for all those packages. Add in family entertainment systems, safety features like backup cameras, and self-closing doors, and you'll see why it's a better choice than that wacky, three-wheeled shopping car.

THEN: Look, Ma: No Hands!

The concept of self-driving cars may seem like a modern innovation, but it's far from new. Consider these images from the 1930s and the 1950s, touting automatic cars and showing a driver operating a car hands-free. It seems that as long as we've been able to drive, we've been looking for a car that does the driving for us.

NOW: Google's on the Case

It's clear that Google has moved far past its search engine roots, but the company likely isn't the first one you think of when you think about automobile technology. That may change with the news that Google is developing self-driving cars. First shown last fall, the self-driving cars are still several years away from actual use. But attendees of this year's TED Conference got a chance to step inside the cars, which reportedly offer quite the ride.

THEN: Alternative Power Sources

The quest for a more powerful automobile has long been focused on alternative power sources. Back in 1932, Popular Science reported that air was being considered as a way to power an automobile that could hit speeds of 80 miles an hour and climb steep hills covered with ice. The air power was harnessed through a giant four-blade propeller attached to the front of the car. It seems like a good idea until you consider how badly this propeller must have impeded the driver's view of the road -- especially when travelling at such high speeds.

NOW: Still Trying to Harness the Wind

Air-powered cars are a reality, though these machines are not widely available. Luxembourg-based MDI, a company that makes vehicles that run on compressed air, is reportedly working to bring those cars to the United States. But despite promises to make it available for less than $18,000 by 2009, we're still waiting for the Air Car to hit U.S. shores.

THEN: The Magic Beam Highway

In 1961, the Chicago Tribune made a bold prediction in its "Closer Than We Think!" column. It touted the Magic Beam Highway, a government-built, automatic roadway that would allow drivers to "look the other way while electronic controls pilot their cars." The so-called robot road would control the speed, direction, and braking of your car. The column said that a 100-mile test route could be operating as soon as 1964, with widespread availability coming as soon as 1975.

NOW: Carmageddon

Automatic highways remain a thing of the future and traffic jams are commonplace for today's car-based commuters. Instead of the highway of our dreams, we have Carmageddon, the recent shutdown of one of Los Angeles's busiest highways, which was expected to cause traffic problems of Biblical proportions. The results weren't nearly as bad as expected, but the uproar over the road closure shows just how far off in the future that Magic Beam Highway remains.

THEN: The Car of the Future

We're never satisfied with what we have, it seems. That's why we're always trying to come up with the next big thing. Back in 1938, Heinz Ketchup heir Rust Heinz took his crack at it, creating the Phantom Corsair, a thoroughly advanced car design featuring a streamlined body without running board, fenders, or even door handles.

NOW: The Car of the Future

It seems we're still in search of that perfectly streamlined automobile. Consider this futuristic car design -- reportedly from the movie Fastlane -- which offers a sleek body with no sign of any fenders or door handles. It's actually quite similar in concept to the car of the future from 1938. But that car had an advantage over this one: it ran. This one, it appears, is simply a shell.

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by PCWorld's Editors