What Happened To The 1,500MPH, No-Wheels, Self-Driving Car?

In a parallel universe, our cars glide over grass highways and park themselves.

In the future, says car designer Chris Bangle, self-driving cars will be invisible and have bus-like seating. In another future – the one that engineer William Bertelsen predicted in 1961 – self-driving cars will slide around on cushions of air and cross the U.S. in just two hours. Cities will be linked by grassy, eight-lane “airways” instead of interstates, and the 8-foot-wide “ground-effect machines” will change lanes at hundreds of miles per hour as their riders leisurely read magazines and smoke pipes, Popular Science reported in August 1961.

The Aeromobile is the simplest powered vehicle: a motorized fan in a box with control flaps remotely controlled from the driver’s seat. This is the entire mechanical system. There are no wheels, tires, axles, transmissions, differentials. fares. But the most significant promise of the air-cushion machine is a completely new traffic system, one in which safety, speeds, and total traffic can rise perhaps tenfold.

no-hands driving
No-hands driving is easy – roadway groove holds car on course. Electronic controls would only be needed at junctions PopSci archives

The pumping stations that keep air flowing through the nationwide system of Aeromobile tubes would be nuclear-powered. Passengers would only need to input direction at junction points. And, with the mobility of a helicopter, Aeromobiles could perform pivot turns in driveways and parellel park by moving sideways.

Automated GEMs will even solve the galling parking problem. The driver could go downtown, get out at the office, and simply send the car home. The owner’s garage becomes his private parking place. With the high speeds and economical mileage of GEM transport, it would be cheaper to send a car home “deadhead” than to park it. Suburban travel is often 20 to 30 miles – only minutes of groove travel. To return home, the owner might call his driverless car to come and pick him up – dialing an electronic code on the telephone.

grass airways
Suburbs could be linked by cheap “airways” paved with grass instead of concrete. PopSci archives

According to Bertelsen, every bit of technology needed to implement his system was already available in 1961. So what happened to his dream? In June 2008, Bertelsen contacted Popular Science to catch up. Basically, he said, Americans lost interest in hovercraft as the space race took off. (But don’t call his Aeromobiles “hovercraft”: “It’s not meant to hover, it’s meant to get places!” he told our reporter.) Bertelsen, who was also a practicing physician in Illinois for more than 50 years, died July 16, 2009.

automatic car
With simple automatic controls, you’d send car back to your garage empty to wait for your call. PopSci archives

Read the full story in our August 1961 issue: 1,500-m.p.h Family Cars?.